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"Why have I written this piece? Because it's needed that's why.
It will look at some of the various ways a student studying in England can achieve a full Hons degree for less than is the norm......"
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Introduction
Why have I written this piece? Because it's needed that's why. The simple fact is, as undergraduate student debt has risen, so has the suspicion that having a degree isn't necessarily the be all and end all of careers development. Of course I don't believe this.

However, whether having a degree is worth the cost and effort or not is not the reason for this piece. What is, is looking at cheaper ways of obtaining a degree rather than paying out the £9000 plus living expenses that is the norm at university in England (yes, this article is about study in England - sorry). Even if you stay at home and study you'll still need to take out a loan for the fees. Therefore this article has been written from the point of view that university study is still good for you, especially from a career development perspective.

So what will this article cover?
It will look at some of the various ways a student studying in England can achieve a full Hons degree for less than is the norm after 3,4 or even 6 years of study. This will include two year degree programmes, degrees provided by private university providers and how distance learning can be a viable alternative.

I hope you find the article useful and informative and that it provokes your further thinking about other ways to secure a degree at a cheaper cost than is the norm.

The Two Year Degree Programme

Two year degrees have been around for some time. However the number of institutions offering them are few and far between as they have simply not taken off in popularity in the way that was predicted when they were first introduced. However this is something that may change as the costs of tuition fees and loans for living costs become too much for some to contemplate. This is because the idea of only having to find the funding for two years as opposed to three is enticing to many. Because of this some pundits feel that this could be the time that the two year degree finally takes off.

So how do they work?
The first thing to say is that if you're hoping this is an easier way of securing a Hons degree because its only two years of study rather than three, then you've got another thing coming. This is because for these degrees the same amount of study and assessment is undertaken by students and the institutions respectively. Quite frankly the two year degree is not an easy option. The main difference lies in the way the study period is organised. Although there may be slight differences between institutions in the way that they offer these truncated qualifications, the principles remain the same. A typical first year would comprise of two semesters instead of the usual three terms. The normal long breaks (especially the summer) are removed and much shorter holidays are introduced at regular intervals during the year. The same outline is repeated for the second year. By getting rid of these longer breaks the students' study experience is more intensive, but shorter overall.

So what are the disadvantages of the two year degree?
The advantages of the two years are obvious and have already been noted above i.e. potential cost saving in tuition fees and loans for living costs. But what are the disadvantages of the two year degree? Why haven't they taken off before now and what could still prevent them from being taken seriously in the future?

First of all the two year is extremely intensive. Its basically two years of continuous study with the off couple of weeks break in between, many would say not enough time to relax and get ones breath back! Secondly two year degrees are not well known in the UK and there is an issue about recognition with employers and other institutions if the student is thinking of going onto Postgraduate study elsewhere.

In the UK two years of study at Higher Education (HE) level would normally be associated with either a Foundation degree, an HND or some form of higher education diploma. Although the rationale is that the student will cover as much of the curriculum as someone who has taken three years, this may be difficult to get across to some employers and other HE institutions.

A third and in many ways far more important problem for the two year degree is that of the Bologna Agreement. This is an internationally agreed accord that is an attempt to harmonise HE qualifications across Europe (up to 47 different countries). The three main awards affected are undergraduate degree (bachelor's), Masters level and Doctorate. But let's stick to the bachelor's.

The main issue is that many European undergraduate degrees are four or five years (as they are in Scotland), while ours (England) is mainly just three years. This issue has created enough problems in relation to the harmonisation of the bachelor degree without the shrinking of the UK version down to two years. It is difficult to see how a two year version can be reconciled with the rest of Europe.

Lastly at present two year degrees do seem quite expensive. There are some savings to be had, but don't forget the same amount of work still has to be completed and marked etc. Nevertheless savings on living costs can still be made and these can still be quite considerable along with the fact that the student is able to start working a year earlier that his/her peers. Getting a year on your friends may not save you a fortune but it certainly can provide you with a period of smugness until they too join the employment market.

Conclusion
There is no doubt that costs will determine whether or not the two year degree flourishes or remains on the periphery of the undergraduate scene. Few institutions offer them, many of which are private universities and their costs as mentioned above are not significantly cheaper at present. It will interesting to see if the two year degree finally takes off in the future and if so, what will be the main driver behind any increase in its popularity.

PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES in the UK

Unlike some countries such as the United States, the term Private University is quite an unusual expression to use in the UK. This is because we are used to higher education study being dominated by state funding. In fact the term private university refers to two different types of situation. There are private universities and private providers. Both offer undergraduate qualifications but have different levels of authority over how they do this.

There are in fact only a handful of private universities in the UK the University of Buckingham perhaps being the best known as it was first. But others are the University of Law, Regents College, BPP and the IFS School of Finance. A couple of newer private universities are the New College of the Humanities and Benedictus, a new Catholic University. Both are in London.

These institutions are private in the sense that they are allowed to confer degrees in their own right. On the other hand a private provider is an organisation that is involved in providing higher education level study but is unable to confer a degree themselves. Instead such providers utilise the services of other universities to validate their degrees i.e. to make them 'valid'. Organisations such as Kaplan, ICS and some Further Education Colleges provide Foundation degrees and Honours degrees through this route.
However to most, and for the benefit of this article, I'll use the term private university to apply to both.

So what are the benefits of going 'private'?
Well of course there are some. First of all many private providers can be extremely generous with their entry requirements. Unlike conventional HE institutions that tend to be part of the University and College Application System (UCAS), and therefore require some form of entry requirement (usually UCAS 'points' for degree entry), private institutions are able to set their own entry criteria, even if they set this at nothing. Secondly private providers are able to create their own degree structure i.e. two year degree, 'e' learning, distance learning etc. This is important as the flexibility of some of these degree structures are exactly what many students are looking for.

For example two year degrees mean students are able to seek employment one year sooner than would be possible at a conventional institution. But the biggest advantage is that of price. Qualifications offered by these private institutions tend to be much cheaper than mainstream universities - up to £3000 cheaper in some instances. And just to make them appear even more attractive students who attend private universities can now secure government backed loans through the Student Loan Company of up to £6000 p.a. - less than the £9000 charged by most mainstream universities, but this is still a radical departure from before. In the past private universities were not eligible for any forms of formal state funding.

Disadvantages?
Well, there is certainly the issue of recognition. Many professional bodies will insist on degrees awarded only from certain institutions. For example only certain universities can provide a degree in Psychology or Law that is recognised by the British Psychological Society or the Law Society respectively. Simply because the title of a degree may contain the words Psychology or Law it does not mean it will be recognised. Always check if planning on studying a qualification from these institutions, particularly for any of the main professions.

The same seems to go to for those looking for employment after completing qualifications at these types of institutions. Although the present government seem keen to encourage the proliferation of these types of institutions, there is a concern over the employment rates for those that have completed qualifications. According to one survey less than half went onto work after graduating and less than 75% went on to further study, while the number is 90% for either work or further study from traditional universities. It may be early days for these new types of institutions, but this is something that will need to be rectified if they are to become a serious challenge to mainstream higher education study.

Conclusion
There is no doubt that private providers are becoming a greater force on the British Higher Education scene. With the radical changes to the funding of HE in England i.e. being able to secure loans for study at private institutions, the popularity of the product being offered by private providers will grow and grow. However as mentioned above there are issues that will need to be taken into account. If you are interested in studying with a non traditional provider try to make sure they are a member of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers. This will not guarantee excellence, but will give you a place to go if you feel you have not received the service or quality that you believe you are entitled to. Also there are professional and employment issues that need to be taken into account. After all, what is better - to spend £9000 per year at a conventional institution with good job prospects, or £6000 at one where graduates struggle to gain employment. Take care on this one!

DISTANCE LEARNING

A favourite for those who cannot study at a conventional institution on a full time basis, distance learning is dominated by the Open University in the UK. Although many universities both state funded and otherwise offer distance learning study options alongside their conventional study, the OU is the main choice for one in three part time students in the country.

What is Distance Learning?
As the name suggests distance learning is study at a distance. The organisation sends the study materials to the student through the post or provides access to materials on line to the student, who can then usually study at a time that suites them, e.g. at home, at work or on the move. The kinds of resources used as part of the study experience include DVDs, podcasts, the use of internet 'Skype' type software, as well as online content and good old fashion books. In some cases face to face tutorials and study days are also offered as part of many modules (OU). However this is not necessarily the norm and many distance learning providers will not provide these study options.

Of course the student is still required to provide evidence of their work, usually by the completion of assignments or similar at regular intervals. An exam, dissertation or some other end of course assessment will also usually be required.

What are the benefits?
The benefits of distance learning are obvious and compelling. The term 'earn while you learn' is one often used by distance learning providers. This is because the student can continue to study towards their career goal in the evenings and at weekends, but still earn a living in order to pay the bills. Coupled with the fact that distance learning providers can be significantly cheaper than conventional full time providers, it's easy to see why more and more students (especially 18 to 25 year olds) are choosing part-time distance learning study as a viable option.

Most distance learning providers will offer the same types of degrees as their full time counterparts, therefore students taking this option will not be at a disadvantage. Furthermore distance learning is ideal for those who are constantly on the move as attendance at daily or even weekly tutorials and lecturers is not necessary or if it is (e.g. for the study of languages) then other options can be provided e.g. Skype or some other similar type of technology.

Students who have care responsibilities e.g. young children or elderly relatives etc, those that are not able to attend a conventional institution because of cultural issues e.g. not allowed to attend mix gender classes, and those that are disabled or have other additional requirements may all find distance learning a welcome opportunity to achieve a higher education experience that would otherwise be denied to them.

Lastly one disadvantage that part-time students have had in the past (including distance learning students) is the fact that they have been unable to access loans in the same way that their full time counterparts have (especially in England). However now access to student loans for part time and distance learning students to help pay for fees is available. For those that have found it difficult to fund their study in the past, access to loans should now make education more accessible.

Disadvantages
Of course there have to be disadvantages as well as advantages to this form of study. For one distance learning degrees tend to be part-time and can therefore take significantly longer than their full time three year equivalents. For example Open University degrees can take a student up to six years but many take longer.

Secondly, although distance learning students do often set up local study groups in order to create their own tutorial experience, studying at a distance can still be a very lonely experience for many. There is the issue of isolation and the lack of peer pressure and support i.e. to motivate the individual. The usual student camaraderie is missing when you are at home or grabbing a quick 30 minutes of study here and there or while having your lunch at work.

Another issue is around recognition of the qualifications being offered by distance learning and part-time organisations. Although universities such as the Open University and Birkbeck College (University of London) have excellent reputations, other lesser known institutions do not always enjoy the same luxury. As long as the degree is validated by a recognised UK based university many employers will not have a problem with the qualification put before them. However some blue chip companies and many professional bodies will be more selective about the awarding body. If you have a particular career in mind you need to be careful of this.

Conclusion
Distance Learning is a great way to achieve a recognised good quality qualification without having to leave home. Ideal for those that need to work to pay the bills and for those that are prevented from studying for other reasons, distance learning is a god send. However it does come with its own issues. Cheaper than many forms of study at this level, distance learning can be a very lonely experience for some. Its takes a great deal of motivation and commitment to get the best out of this type of study, and for some it simple doesn't work. Nevertheless, it's still an option to look at as a (cheaper) viable alternative to the usual three year degree programme.

So - What next?
I've gone through some of the alternatives of studying a degree in the UK. But how do you decide whether to try these options - or to go down the traditional route of three years of study. Using the services of a careers adviser could be a great way to help determine what is the best route for you. See our Careers Directory here.
Leo Edwald - The Directory of the Professions

Article - Three ways to secure a cheaper degree