By Michelle Coull

The launch of the University of London’s first online BSc signals a step-change for student recruitment.

Universities are realising that flexibility is key if they want to attract learners on to their degree courses.

This move opens the door for older people who don’t want to give up work to study, and to those who can’t afford to move away from home to go to uni, or who have family responsibilities that tie them to a location.

And keeping fees down – the University of London’s £5,605 a year is well below the £9000 maximum tuition fee – will also make the course appealing. It’s effective student marketing.

Remember, the number of part-time students in England and Wales dropped by 40 per cent after fees increased in 2012 ­– presenting a real challenge for student recruitment.

Of course, the Open University has been delivering courses online for years now. And it’s common for post-graduate qualifications to have the option of learning on the web.

As it began recruiting students, the University of London said its online BSc in computer science is where the change really begins.

For one thing, its course is more rigidly structured than OU courses, where some students can take several years to complete their degrees.

In the US, the University of Phoenix has been offering online qualifications – including post-graduate and doctoral level – for years.

It didn’t take me aback that the University of London is working with an American firm which has successfully signed up 31 million learners to massive open online courses on this new offering. It’s the Americans’ first foray into degree-level qualifications, but they have an established track record.

What does surprise me is that it has taken a bricks-and-mortar university so long to go down this path. Some courses have been streaming lectures for years.

You only have to look at the growth of the University of the Highlands and Islands, with its distance learning centres strung across the north of Scotland, to see that this approach can work and provides real benefits.

Of course, the University of London’s online students will have to attend invigilated exams to demonstrate what they have learned. But a few days away from home is a whole lot different to three years in student digs.

I’ve got to say a move like this is a welcome change. There’s no such thing as a job for life anymore – people are increasingly changing careers at different points in their life.

That, in itself, is an opportunity for educational establishments. Men and women will be looking to retrain or progress their qualifications throughout their working life, possibly repeatedly.

Easier access to education is increasingly important. Employers may be missing out on good people, with transferable skills and great life and business experience, because their job descriptions are too restrictive.

When I was first applying for jobs, having a degree wasn’t vital – it didn’t necessarily impact your ability to get a job. However, now SME’s are making a degree a requirement.

Larger corporate bodies are filtering out applicants by stating in the application process you must have a minimum of a 2:1, or in some cases a First, in order to get to the interview stage.

Online degree programmes allows people to upskill, to actually have access to education that gives them freedom to improve themselves and their prospects.

Future generations of young people will go where the work is as the economy evolves, picking up the skills they need as and when they need them. Anything unis and colleges can do to make that process easier can only be of benefit to the institution and the individual.

The University of London anticipates a few hundred students will start its online BSc this year, quickly growing to 3000.

But those people are just the vanguard of an army of online learners to follow.

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