When Harold Wilson floated the idea of an Open University in 1963 he thought its students would be people in their thirties, forties and fifties who had missed the chance to do a degree. He probably never imagined that it would attract 18-year-olds worried about student debt and graduate unemployment.
But now the under-25s are the fastest-growing age group at the institution, which pioneered distance learning. Thousands of students now choose to study at home through the OU, not because they lack the grades to go to a conventional university but because they think a full-time degree will be too expensive. Faced with dwindling university grants and the necessity of having to take out loans to support themselves at college, they choose these part-time undergraduate programmes instead. This way, they know they can earn while they learn.
This year 4,173 under-25s enrolled for degree-level OU courses - compared with 2,762 students last year. Although the group still forms a small proportion of the university's 140,000 students, its numbers are rising fast. And a recent survey of its members revealed that more than half had chosen this option for financial reasons.
With all the main political parties now keen to find ways of making graduates repay a greater proportion of the cost of their studies, more and more young people are likely to follow the OU path, according to its spokeswoman, Annette Mathias.
"We may be witnessing the beginning of a trend where 18- and 19-year- olds make a conscious decision to join the OU rather than a conventional university," she says.
David Booth, 19, from Pontefract, joined the OU's first-level degree course in computing this year.
"I opted for the OU because I simply could not afford to support myself at a conventional university," he says.
David is unemployed at the moment but hopes to find work as a trainee in a computer firm to pay his OU fees.
Students who choose OU must pay about pounds 3,000 in fees before they can gain a degree and they are not eligible for mandatory grants. But unlike conventional university courses, theirs is designed to allow them to work at the …