Distance learning: the students who combine education and employment


On the face of it, Rashid Balogun and Sara Wingham have little in common. Rashid, 49, is a Los Angeles-based accountant, Sara, a 29-year-old analyst living and working in Hereford. Rashid has a PhD in Business Administration. Until recently, Sara had no higher education. Yet, despite some 5,000 miles and 20 years between then, both are now graduates of the University of London as a result of distance learning. And they are not the only ones.

More than 50,000 students from 190 countries worldwide are currently enrolled with the University of London International Programmes, the world's oldest distance and flexible learning provider. Offering degrees across 15 major subject areas, courses are developed by 12 of the the University of London's constituent colleges, which include such world renowned institutions as the LSE and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But whether studying economics or epidemiology, everyone is working towards the same thing – the right to add 'London' to the end of their name.

The University of London International Programmes is almost as old as the University of London itself, which first made its degrees accessible to students around the globe in 1858. Much has changed since then but people's appetite for professional and personal development remains a constant. And in the current economic climate, where education and employment are often presented as an either/or choice, distance learning allows people the flexibility to pursue both at the same time.

For Rashid Balogun, the choice to study a Master of Laws was professional. "At the time I enrolled on my masters with the University of London, I thought I'd completed all I'd set out to achieve academically," says the Canadian born, US certified public accountant, who already held a BSc in accounting and a masters in business as well as his PhD, all from Californian universities. "Then came the Wall Street crash of 2008 and my Hollywood dream became a Hollywood nightmare!"

Owed money from a range of clients, Balogun decided he needed to equip himself with the skills to save his livelihood. "Lots of people are unaware that taxation is nothing other than law," he says. "I knew I needed to understand the law more deeply and the best approach was to seek out a qualification where I wouldn't spend too much time in the classroom and could maintain my own client base."

Balogun researched his options and soon found that the University of London International Programmes provided the best value for money. "I could choose subjects based on how much I had in my wallet and build up units from there – a sort of "pay as you go" system," he says. "I started out on a postgraduate diploma and upgraded to the LLM the following year." Crucially, the qualification was recognised in his native Canada.

"This is what singles out the University of London from other distance learning options," says Balogun. "It's recognised worldwide. And personally, I will tell you, it also earns you major bragging rights." Balogun has tested this theory in courtrooms from LA to Lagos, where he has been the brain behind several Nigerian revenue enforcement programmes. It's work he would not have got without his degree, he says. "Add LLM London to your name and everybody looks at you differently."

Balogun is in good company. Nelson Mandela studied towards a law degree with the University of London during his years of imprisonment, while the International Programmes also counts seven Nobel prize winners and a long list of politicians, judges, academics and business leaders among its graduates. Thanks to the internet, this extraordinary network can now stay in touch at the click of a mouse. The Alumni Association has 20,000 active members worldwide.

But contrary to the name, not all are international. Of those currently enrolled, 5,000 are studying in the UK and for some, like Sara Wingham, choosing to study with the University of London International Programmes was a personal decision. Today, she is a senior analyst for Allpay, a company specialising in payment processing for the public sector. But rewind a decade and despite having three good A-Levels, a gap year in industry and a place to read Politics at Durham, Wingham had just made a big decision – to turn it down.

"I realised I didn't really want to go to university," she recalls. "I'd never been the partying type and the idea of living in halls horrified me. I'm smart, I knew that. I didn't need to spend three years and thousands of pounds to prove it." Instead, she got a job in the civil service – "the only non-graduate in my intake" – where she was began working her way up the ladder. But 18 months in and spending most of her spare time doing brain puzzles, Wingham realised she needed a challenge. She typed "distance learning" into Google and came across the University of London.

"As soon as I discovered I could study a degree in International Relations, by distance learning, developed by the LSE, I was interested," she says. "My love has always been knowing a little about a lot of things and this course involved a bit of history, a bit of politics, a bit of economics and a bit of psychology. Finally at the ripe old age of 22, I'd found a subject that interested me enough to spend several years immersed in it."

Money wasn't an issue for Wingham – her employer paid for her course – but flexibility of study was. "I did my research and University of London gave me the widest choice, it allows you to pick 12 units from a choice of 50," she says. "That gave me a massive freedom to specialise." Then there was the timing. "I got a reading list and course programme each September and the exams were in May. What I did in between was my choice."

Make no mistake, she says, distance learning is hard work and requires real self-discipline. "But people learn in hugely different ways. The traditional format of sitting in front of a lecturer for an hour and writing an essay every two weeks doesn't suit everyone. I prefer to do it at my own pace." Across the ocean, Balogun agrees. "I'm at the stage where if I'm learning anything, I would rather do it independently. In the case of the law, it helps you develop more than just knowledge. It gives you the skills to think on your own two feet in court."

After five years of part-time study alongside her civil service job, Wingham graduated from the International Programme in 2010 with a first and a scholarship to study on campus at the LSE to read an MA in History. Academic achievements aside, she finds the skills she learned also transfer to her new job at Allpay. "More and more, my work is about knowledge, finding it, reproducing it and manipulating it," she says, "not just in a spreadsheet or database way, but in a conceptual, mental space."

Lessons learned? Education shouldn't be about either/or. From Hollywood to Hereford, from professional development to personal enrichment, the University of London International Programmes offers choice without compromise. And far from a cheap, quick fix, distance learning means going the distance. Who knows? You might even surprise yourself along the way. Wingham enrolled to better herself and ended up bettering her job. As for Balogun: "I knew if I was going to invest in my career, I needed to invest in me," he says. "And the returns have been superb."

For more information on all courses that can be studied through the University of London International Programmes please see www.londoninternational.ac.uk. You apply direct to the university, you do not need to go through UCAS.

By Nancy Groves