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Youth no obstacle on OU route

While a shortage of places in traditional higher education is denying many the chance to study for a degree, the Open University has seen a marked rise in applications from the 18-24s

While a shortage of places in traditional higher education is denying many the chance to study for a degree, the Open University has seen a marked rise in applications from the 18-24s

They watched TV programmes presented by men in cardigans, broadcast in the middle of the night, and went to summer schools with a reputation for very good parties.

Open University students were mostly mature, with day jobs and families, and admired for their commitment and personal sacrifice over years of study. You didn't need any qualifications to get in and there are still no formal entry requirements.

But since the OU turned 40 last year, it's clear there have been changes since its launch in 1969. Most students are still in the 25-49 age bracket, but over the past two years there has been a 34 per cent rise in the number of 18 to 24-year-olds embarking on OU studies in Scotland. This year's shortage of traditional university places will doubtless increase that trend.

The OU has been in the top five for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey for the past five years and is a world leader in flexible distance learning. It ranks 43rd in the top 50 UK higher education establishments and those late-night lectures, made in partnership with the BBC, have moved to prime-time slots with series such as Coast and The Money Programme.

James Miller, the newly-appointed director of the Open University in Scotland, says growing numbers of young people want to earn while they learn. "We think, although we don't have strong evidence for this yet, that one of the issues must be the drop in the number of students getting into traditional universities.

"Undoubtedly, the economic situation is making students and their parents think about alternative options to what might be regarded as traditional university pathways," says Dr Miller, former chief executive of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

A former nurse, who moved into health service management, Dr Miller, 46, spent much of his working career in part-time education and feels a genuine affinity with OU students. "When I was a nurse, you trained and were educated at the same time," he says. "Then I did my post-registration degree part-time, I did my MBA part-time and I did my PhD part-time."

The OU has a successful track record of increasing progression from college to university, with one in four students coming from college. "We have increasing partnership agreements with individual colleges in Scotland who accredit their learning, so that's another factor in 18-24 learning," Dr Miller says.

The OU's Young Applicants in Schools Scheme (YASS) was introduced to bridge the gap between school and university and is raising its profile among youngsters.

It was piloted in the Highlands in 2007-08 and now operates across Scotland, allowing sixth years to work independently on OU subjects usually unavailable in schools. These modules can be accredited towards an OU degree. Last year 240 students at 45 Scottish schools took OU courses, with more scheduled to begin shortly.

There are almost 1,600 OU students between 18 and 24 in Scotland out of 15,000 students. Almost half of all students get some financial help and 70 per cent are working. Those earning less than pound;22,000 can apply for an Individual Learning Account of up to pound;500 a year.

This year's school leavers would not find the OU listed in clearing, but Dr Miller hopes that will change. "It's one of those things we will be pushing for because, unlike traditional universities, we don't have a cap on the number of people we can take into a course."

Stephanie Guy, 19, was a hard worker at Castle Douglas High in Kirkcudbrightshire and says she was gutted when she didn't get the grades she needed for the university course she wanted to do.

"I was totally devastated with my exam results," she says. "I went to summer school at the Glasgow University campus in Dumfries with a view to getting another grade to go there and study primary education or health and social care. But I never got that. So I got my job and then I read something and decided to phone the OU to see if I could get financial support to do another course. I just decided it was another route for me."

She lives with her parents and works as a clerical assistant, studying online at home and in her lunch break at work. "I get my course paid for me, because I am earning about pound;16,000. I love it," says Stephanie, who is studying with the OU to become a social worker.

Holly Davidson, 18, from Saltcoats went to Auchenharvie Academy in North Ayrshire and began an OU arts course in February.

"I had problems at home and that meant that I wasn't really focusing at school and eventually I had to drop out. I was looking into the Open University and I found that you don't need any formal qualifications - they basically trust you to be able to handle it.

"I am finding it really interesting and there's always someone to help you if you need it," says Holly, who wants to do an English degree to become a journalist or an English teacher. She's the first in her immediate family to go to university.

"I am looking for a full-time job at the moment as well as studying. Because I am a Scottish student, I get my fees paid straight away and I have also had access to certain funds, such as a fund if you don't have a computer to study with. Because it's an online course, they give you a free computer and free printer. That really helped me so much."

- For further information about places at the OU in Scotland this October, call 0845 300 60 90 or visit:

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