The OU, like other academic institutions, is responding to a growing demand for postgraduate study. It is now the country's largest provider of postgraduate education, in terms of student numbers, and has a clutch of new taught Master's programmes recently or just about to be launched.
You can now study for a part-time MA or MSc in the key academic disciplines of Science, Maths, Social Sciences and Humanities (Arts) - as well as more specialised and vocationally-oriented areas like management, education and computing and manufacturing, where the OU already has a strong tradition of higher degree study.
Why are more people opting for Master-level study? Gordon McLuckie, one of the OU's Regional Advisors who help students with course choice and vocational guidance, defines two broad groups. "Many students doing Master's are simply following up an interest - often people who got interested in a subject during their first degree and want to look at it in greater depth.
"On the other hand, those doing courses such as the MBA or the Computing for Commerce and Industry MSc are likely to be looking at furthering their career and obtaining a widely-recognised qualification."
Dr Jeremy Mitchell, Director of the new Master's in Social Sciences programme, agrees that people are increasingly looking to a Master's to further their career. "More people now have first degrees. Thirty percent of the relevant age cohort now go on to higher education; 20 years ago it was only five percent. Employers will be looking for further, more differentiated, qualifications."
Both the "want a qualification" and the "general interest" student have been in the minds of the creators of the brand-new Social Science Master's programme which takes its first students in November.
"When we started our planning, we envisaged the largest number of students would be wanting a general degree in the field of social sciences. This would be people who have studied social sciences at undergraduate level and want to go on, but don't know exactly in what specific area. It can also act as a 'conversion degree' for those who have done a different subject for their first degree.
"Some study lines also include a dissertation which would be useful for those wanting to go on and do a research degree."
"But we also see a demand for people who want advanced training in their particular area, and a qualification with professional relevance."
To cope with this range of demand the programme has been structured as a series of discrete, mostly short courses (referred to as modules) each studied over a period of 16 weeks - or 32 weeks in the case of the few longer modules).
Following a pattern which differs from the tradition February to October OU year, each module begins in either November, or May.
After the first, foundation, module, students can study a broad mix of subjects ending in an MA in Social Sciences, or follow a particular "study line" to a more narrowly focused MA or MSc - in Cultural and Media Studies, Environment Policy and Society or Psychological Research Methods. Two further lines, Psychology and Social Policy (including Criminology) should be in place by 2000.
Launched in February this year, the MSc in Science was born after a survey of OU graduates and students indicated enthusiastic support for a Science Master's. In the event, around half the students in the first year were graduates of other universities.
It is designed for those who want to explore some of contemporary science's most pressing issues, in the two linked areas of medical science and the public understanding of science. Students can follow one of the two main themes, or mix both.
The programme is innovative in its delivery. Electronic communication and conferencing feature strongly, and the …