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More people sign up for Open University online courses amid pandemic

·4-min read

The number of people signing up for Open University online courses has surged amid the pandemic, figures show.

Student numbers at the distance-learning organisation have risen by 15% over the past year, with more people choosing to study online due to Covid-19.

Open University (OU) says the coronavirus pandemic has been the main driver of the rise as it has increased the demand for upskilling and reskilling, and emphasised the attractiveness of distance learning.

The OU, which is the UK’s only university dedicated to distance learning, has seen a growth in numbers across all four UK nations, and there has also been an increase in people enrolling with the OU to study full-time.

Overall, the total number of students enrolled for the 2020/21 academic year, which includes both new and continuing undergraduates, postgraduates and apprenticeship students, is up 15% on last year – from just over 141,000 to more than 163,000.

Meanwhile, more than 59,000 new students registered with the OU in 2020/21, compared with nearly 47,000 in 2019/20 – a rise of just over 25%, according to figures shared with the PA news agency.

Students who signed up to study with OU for the 2020/21 academic year either began their courses in October 2020 or March 2021.

The findings come after university students saw their teaching moved online in the spring term last year when the first lockdown in March was announced.

Most students in England, apart from those on critical courses, were then told not to return to campus as part of the third lockdown in January this year.

The DfE has said all remaining students in England are still not allowed to return to in-person lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.

Students in England currently pay up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees, but the equivalent full-time degree course at the OU costs just over £6,000-a-year.

Marnie Coxall, 18, from Kent, opted to study with the OU for an HE certificate in psychology in October as the distance and independent learning offer was attractive to her during the pandemic.

She said: “This was the only university I was confident that I would be able to study at this year.

“It meant I could stay at home and do my studies in a way I wanted to do them and work out a way in which I want to study.”

But despite the surge in demand, OU is concerned that the total number of new undergraduate students in England is still 40% lower than the peak in 2010/11, prior to reforms of student funding which led to universities in England being able to charge up to £9,000 a year for their courses.

Professor Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of OU, has warned that the cost of part-time study in England is still proving a barrier to many people who want to learn and improve their career prospects.

He said: “We are both pleased and optimistic at this growth, which shows students continuing to make a clear choice to study with the OU, with many opting to begin their studies full-time with us, in what has been an incredibly challenging year for society globally.

“Given the impact of the pandemic we are not complacent about this rise in numbers and are very conscious that many of our students are beginning their courses in a more challenging and unpredictable environment.

“Many juggle work, caring responsibilities and family commitments as they begin their study.

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“We are acutely aware that the cost of part-time study in England means many people are still losing out and face a barrier to their aspirations and ambitions to learn and improve their career prospects.

“With uncertainty in the economy set to continue into 2021 and beyond, we also know that many people will be facing a need to upskill or reskill in a way that is affordable and flexible.”

Prof Blackman added: “We continue to press our case with the UK Government for policy change in England that invests in lifelong learning.

“That includes extending maintenance loans to all part-time distance learners in England, who are currently denied the same support as students who study part-time but face-to-face.”