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The Open University
Funding study for a distance learning degree
For some, distance learning or online learning can work out cheaper or more affordable than studying an equivalent degree course, on campus.
The exact tuition fees you’re charged will vary depending on the course and provider, and the nation you live in, so check this directly.
The flexible nature of distance learning can make it more financially practical. We talk about the various ways you can fund your studies below, including paying in instalments or through payment plans.
And while you’ll still have your own living and study costs, there are costs that you won’t have to budget for (that a student moving away to university will). Our research (UCAS Spend Student Lifestyle Report 2020) found that the average first year student spent £2,077 on items before even getting to university. Additional expenses, such as homeware, kitchenware, and travelcards, are largely irrelevant for distance learning students.
While individual spending will vary, here’s a breakdown of costs that come with studying a distance learning degree, and some you can forget about.
What you have to pay for:
- Tuition fees (see below for nation-specific funding information) – these usually cover tuition, key materials, exams, and other admin.
- Equipment – your own computer or laptop, plus accessories and software.
- Internet – you may consider increasing your existing broadband package, especially if many people are online at once in your household.
- Home study furniture – you’ll need a comfortable place to study for long periods.
- Additional, subject-specific course materials – like fiction books for English Literature students.
- Travel fees for exams or other occasional campus events – if you need accommodation, ask your university if they provide this.
- Graduation costs – cap and gown, guest tickets.
- General living costs – consider how distance learning may affect your budget. For example, will you need to pay for childcare?
We have advice to help with these costs below.
What you don’t have to pay for (compared to a campus-based student):
- Student housing - rent, admin fees, utilities.
- Homeware and kitchenware.
- Regular travel to campus.
How to fund your tuition fees
Tuition Fee Loan (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland* only)
Like campus-based students, some students studying an undergraduate distance learning degree can apply for a Tuition Fee Loan to cover their tuition fees upfront. You’ll repay this (plus interest) once you finish your studies, and you’re earning above a minimum threshold.
What you can get and the exact eligibility criteria you must satisfy will vary depending on where you live. Typically, this should be your first undergraduate degree, with an approved university or course provider, and you must meet some basic nationality/residence criteria.
You must apply to the student finance body in your country for tuition fees (please note that OU students are not eligible for maintenance grants, except in Wales where grants for living costs are available):
- England: Student Finance England
- Scotland: Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS)
- Wales: Student Finance Wales
- Northern Ireland: Student Finance Northern Ireland
*Part-Time Fee Grant (Northern Ireland)
Students in Northern Ireland may be eligible for the income-based part-time fee grant of up to £1,230 per year, and all are able to access a tuition fee loan if the grant doesn't cover the full amount or they aren't eligible.
For more information visit the Open University website or Student Finance Northern Ireland.
Part-Time Fee Grant (Scotland)
If your personal income is £25,000 or less, or you’re receiving certain benefits, you could qualify for the fee grant and top-up funding to cover 100% of your course fees. It’s a grant rather than a loan – which means you won’t need to pay it back.
To find out more about the grant, visit the SAAS website.
International students should consult the student finance authority in their country to find out what similar support may be available, or check out the other funding options below. The Open University has further guidance on how part-time funding works across different countries.
Tuition fee support is available for both full-time and part-time distance learning students, though the latter should check their ‘course intensity’, as this may affect what they can get.
What is course intensity?
For part-time students, course intensity measures how much of their course they complete each year, compared to a full-time student on an equivalent course. The easiest way to figure this out, is to compare how many credits you’ll study per year, compared to a full-time student.
Note, all Open University students are considered part-time students, even if they study at the same course intensity as a full-time student.
Payment or instalment plans
If you plan to self-fund your tuition fees, find out what payment plans your university or course provider offers – something worth considering when researching study options.
You can pay your full tuition fees upfront, if you have the funds.
Payment or instalment plans allow you to pay as you study, either per year or module, or in several instalments over a year.
For example, The Open University offers an Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA) loan, which students can repay in one go, or in monthly instalments over a year. Students can also combine different payment methods.
Check what payment options your university or course provider offers, as well as the following:
- what payment methods they accept – particularly for international students
- their payment details (for bank transfers)
- when payments are due
- any interest or charges
- if you need to pay anything upfront
This information should be available on their website, as well as in your offer letter. If you’re unsure, or you have any questions, get in touch with them.
If you want to pursue a degree that’s related to your current job, talk to your employer about whether they would be willing to fund your tuition fees (fully or partially).
There are no guarantees that your employer will offer this, although many organisations and companies do. It’s a good way to develop staff who show potential, but lack the academic qualifications to make the next step up.
While it can be demanding, continuing to work while studying has its benefits. It might be the only feasible way you can support yourself while pursuing a distance learning degree. Your studies may inform your work, and vice versa – just one of the pros to distance learning.
What support is available, and the process to go about this, will depend on your employer. A good start would be talking to your line manager or human resources department. Consider the following questions before you have this conversation:
- What course/s are you interested in?
- How will this help you develop your skills and knowledge? Try to be specific.
- How will your employer benefit, or how will this help you contribute to their objectives?
Highlighting your tenure with the organisation (if you’ve been there a long time), achievements like targets you’ve exceeded, or ways you’ve developed yourself already, may help your case too.
Also, think about any implications this might have on your current role. For example, will you need to change your working hours?
Distance learning and online learning students may be eligible for extra financial help based on their personal circumstances. You'll have to do a little research into your options, and many are often non-repayable.
- Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) – students in the UK with a disability, mental health condition, or learning difficulty can claim allowances to cover the cost of any extra study costs they incur, as a result of their disability or condition. Learn more about DSAs, including assessment and expenses that are covered.
- Low household income support – depending on where you live in the UK, your student finance body may have extra support for students whose household income falls below a minimum amount.
- Scholarships and bursaries – it’s worth asking your university or course provider about any scholarships or bursaries they offer, which you’re eligible for. Scholarships are typically offered based on academic merit or achievement, while bursaries are related to personal circumstances, like household income or your background.
Check out our full guide to extra funding, to learn about the range of financial awards available.
We have lots more finance advice around calculating your student budget and managing your money as a student.
Discover your study options – search for a course, subject, or university now.