Degrees used to be a rarity, things that the majority of the population could only dream of. Now, however, more and more people have degrees in any subject imaginable - from Astrophysics to American Studies to History of Art, and therefore those without a degree are finding themselves at an increasing disadvantage.
More and more people are deciding to go back to university as mature students. This is happening because there are now a wide range of courses to choose from, both in terms of subject and in terms of types of qualifications. Students can now take Diplomas, HNDs (Higher National Diploma), Access courses1, and many other qualifications which make returning to education a real possibility for many people.
The Open University
The Open University (OU) is a British long-distance learning institution, which allows people to study for a degree who would normally be unable to, because of their age, other commitments or lack of qualifications. There are no formal entry requirements, so it especially appeals to those who left school as soon as possible and now regret the decision.
The OU is famed for its flexibility, because it allows almost unlimited time to complete a degree. The student chooses how many modules to do each year, gradually banking them up until there are enough for a degree. The deadlines and exams are not flexible, because that would devalue the course, but the amount to take a year are, so people with families, or sudden financial disasters for example, can postpone their studies, or take them down a notch. This allows people to fit their degrees around their lives, so they can continue to work, while studying in their spare time.
All types of people take OU degrees; housewives, grandfathers, even especially gifted children - all are catered for. However, these are not the only people affected when they choose to take an OU degree. They all have families, who, when they agreed it was a good idea, had no idea at all what they were letting themselves in for. They tend to receive a rude awakening when the student starts the course, and as a result can be less than helpful.
Then there are employers who can be extremely unsupportive, especially if they suspect their employee is going to leave once they have their degree, or demand a pay rise. There are jealous friends, who get perturbed when they realise they no longer hold the monopoly over the student's spare time, there are the neighbours, who resent having to keep their television down to a whisper 24 hours a day... the list is endless. Which is why it takes a very strong person to even contemplate studying at the OU.
The Trials and Tribulations of an OU Degree
It is often said that an OU degree is worth more than any other, because of the problems OU students face. To succeed, they need several key things.
Discipline - This cannot be over-emphasised, it is absolutely crucial. The problem is that having the assignment sent to you, with just a date to be sent back, means that no one tells you when to do it. There are so many other things to do that it must be tempting to shove it to the back of a drawer and dig it out the night before you need to post it. However, OU students need the discipline to set aside a certain time to study and stick to it. This is perhaps the hardest part of the degree. Having to ignore the distractions of family and friends, who don't understand and offer to take you out to 'forget all about it for a while', and get to work instead is incredibly hard to do.
Brains - Just because you don't need specific qualifications to do an OU degree doesn't mean that they are easy. Far from it. They are at degree level. Which is hard.
A thick skin - Many people regard OU degrees as a waste of time. This is especially hurtful when your family has this point of view and air it. Eventually though, most families come round to the idea and are actually very supportive when they see how much it means to the student.
What to Do if a Family Member Takes an OU Degree
Just like an OU student, there are also characteristics you will need to develop if a relation takes an OU degree. Especially if you live with them.
A thick skin - You too are going to need it, because they will be very stroppy. You just have to learn to take it when they yell at you for breathing loudly in the next room. Remember, they are under stress and they probably need to let off steam.
A volume control - On whatever you do. If you talk, do it quietly. If you go up the stairs, do it quietly. If you breath, do it quietly. They need to concentrate, and they will not welcome disturbances.
Sensitivity - They are relying on you for support. Even if you think it's all a waste of time - which it isn't - you should still be there for them when they need a hug/bar of chocolate/someone to yell at.
Patience - it will be a long, hard slog, but you will just have to be patient. Don't moan about how long it's taking (not within earshot anyway) and don't get cross when they have to postpone things like holidays.
A dishcloth - The student will have a lot less time to help around the house. When they would normally have been doing housework or relaxing they will now be submerged in books. You could go in there and remind them that the washing-up needs doing, or that the kids need their tea, but if you want to keep your head attached to your body then go and do the chores yourself2.
Someone to support you - An OU degree doesn't just affect the student, it affects their whole family, which is why you need to support each other. It's unfair to blame the student, but everyone needs to moan about it. This is perfectly normal, but make sure you moan to the right person. There's no point in hurting someone's feelings just to make yourself feel better, and they'll remember it long after you've forgotten what the argument was all about.
Bear in Mind
Doing an OU degree will take over their life. Honestly. You might think they're obsessive about the garden/chocolate/football/milkman, but that's nothing in comparison. You'll find yourself rearranging your entire life to fit around tutorials, summer schools and assignments. Just hold your tongue, shut your eyes and repeat to yourself 'Only four years to go, only four years to go'. Whatever you do, don't be tempted to complain to them about it. You'll end up looking like Cruella De Vil3 in comparison with them and their selfless hard work.
You all need optimism. One day it will be over. The student will have a degree and letters after their name. You can tick the little box on the form which asks if any family members have a degree4.
The degree will open up avenues everywhere. New career opportunities, higher pay or just more respect from people. Or perhaps the student will decide they loved it so much they want to do another one, in which case, you'll have to re-read this entry.