Self-starters who study from home
A panel chaired by Lord Brown is gearing up to make recommendations on the future of university funding in England. With the number of students studying by distance learning expected to grow as costs for traditional degrees rise, one masters student explains why she is a convert to studying online.
If you think studying a university course from your kitchen at home is the poor relation to the campus experience, then think again says student Nikki Brice.
The 33-year-old has recently completed an MA in Children's Literature at Roehampton University.
She studied for the course from her home in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire, while working full time as a personal injury lawyer.
"When I first decided to apply for a distance learning course I had to think about the differences and, to be honest, I was a little apprehensive.
"But it was great because it allowed me to do a course of my choice at a university of my choice without having to worry about geographical problems."
As a mature student with a full life and a full-time job, giving all that up and moving to south-west London was not an option for her.
Central to the experience of the distance learning student is the online learning environment.
This features study modules, guidance, sample essays, tests and a full online library through which students can easily download specific related texts.
"You can find the section that you need really easily and that's pretty useful. You can print it out - that's the beauty of it.
"And it means you don't have to go trawling through the library looking for materials."
There are also a number of interactive forums which students use to discuss their chosen subjects with each other and with the tutors.
"It's really like a chatroom - but it's specifically for students completing that particular module.
"The flexibility of it means that you are constantly coming into contact with people from all walks of life and abroad.
"Instead of just getting used to a small set of people you are coming into contact with a whole range of different people who are asking challenging questions."
She says she was amazed at how much support she got from her fellow students.
"One of the bonuses of distance learning is that everybody is on their own so you don't feel isolated - there is a lot of support."
Far from feeling isolated, she said, she possibly felt more supported by her tutors than she had on previous "on-site" courses.
"It was obvious from day one that they were particularly aware of the unique position of distance learning students.
"The amount of one-to-one contact by e-mail and over the phone was amazing," she adds.
In a way the extra attention places more demands on the student, she says, because there is nowhere to hide if you do not know the answer.
But Nikki is clear that not everyone is cut out to do a distance learning course because of the greater degree of self-discipline, independent thinking and motivational skills that are required.
She adds: "With the growth of distance learning courses in the future, employers will really come to value the skills that students need to complete them."