4 years, 12 years and 25 years

Earlier this year the OCA celebrated its 25th Birthday and Saturday marked the start of our new academic year. To most OCA students academic years are not relevant because of our start anytime policy, but we do take the opportunity once a year to update our student handbook, regulations and the associated FAQs on the website. Since we recognise that these are not necessarily documents which are read on a regular basis, this post seeks to draw your attention to a significant change and an associated smaller but nevertheless important change.

With effect from 1 September we have introduced a 12 year limit on the time available to complete a degree programme and a four year target to complete each of the three levels towards a degree. Having said this, there are two important points to make immediately:

  • Firstly, the introduction of this time limit is not retrospective. This is important. To be absolutely clear, for existing students the time taken to earn credits before September does not count towards the 12 years. So, if you have taken 11 years to complete levels one and two, this does not mean we expect you to complete level 3 in one year. Rather, it is that we would expect you to complete the final third of your degree study in four years.
  • Secondly, we fully understand that seven times two does not make 12. Twelve years was chosen as it is twice the normal limit for part-time study in Higher Education and represents study at 25% of full-time. The two year time limit for an individual course remains at two years and we understand that someone taking the maximum time for each course and only studying one unit at a time will run out of time. However, while this is theoretically possible, it does not reflect the student experience. Large numbers of students study more than one course at a time, the average time to complete a course is about 15 months and the average time to complete a degree with OCA is just under seven years.

So why make this change? For sound educational reasons. Degree study is akin to building pyramids, you build knowledge and skills upon the foundations laid previously. And knowledge moves forward. I know some will be immediately thinking that, for example, the understanding of the physics of light necessary for photography hasn’t really changed much in last few years, but critical thinking does move forward. We have to protect students’ chances of being successful at level three by ensuring they have a current understanding of the areas they studied earlier in the degree programme.

There is a second, related, reason for the time limit and targets. We know that the students who succeed are those who manage to find the way to establish a regular pattern of study. The time limit is extremely unlikely to impact on the time students take on each course, but will discourage taking large gaps between courses. Gaps in which these study patterns get eroded.

Finally, we are seeking to reinforce the understanding that sometimes it is important to stop working on projects and submit the work for assessment. There is always a danger in the absence of deadlines that a student will work and rework a perfectly good piece of work, growing less confident in its merits over time.

It is for this third reason that we are introducing the second smaller change which I referred to above. Going forward, students will be expected to submit work for assessment no later than the second assessment event after they complete a course, not the third assessment event as was previously the case.

While these changes may just be seen as restrictions on students, they are equally imperatives on us at the OCA head office to ensure we keep students aware of where they are in the programme and the time they have available for submitting for assessment. This is something we take very seriously.

To return to where we started, it has been very clear to me in my four years as the OCA’s Chief Executive that one changes the model which has been developed by the OCA over twenty five years with considerable care. However in that four years we have seen a dramatic change, with the majority of our students no longer studying for single courses but for full degrees – a fact reflected in the 43% increase in re-enrolments over the last twelve months. These changes are necessary to ensure what we do reflects those student expectations and it was with that in mind that I discussed the proposal with our Teaching and Learning Committee and sought approval from our Board of Trustees.

The full student regulations are available online and can be read here. I hope nothing in this post is a cause for concern. If that is the case; good, please just continue enjoying your course. If you are concerned, tell us why below. I will be checking back regularly and replying to comments.

Gareth Dent



  1. Tim Stamps 7 September 2012 at 5:09 pm

    I planned on taking almost the fullest time to gain my degree, as in just under two years on each part, and i will continue to take my time with each part of it as i see fit. I believe the time or rather lack of time restrictions you place on your students is a real strength of the OCA. It enables those of us with busy lives to study when we can, also study thoroughly.

    Having said that you make a good case and i myself have found the amount of time can be an excuse to put it off for another day.

    ‘Going forward, students will be expected to submit work for assessment no later than the second assessment event after they complete a course, not the third assessment event as was previously the case.’ This, im sorry, i just dont understand. Assessment overall (as in actual degree assessment) or assessment within each course, or each level?



  2. esther ward 7 September 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Whilst I fully understand your raison d’etre for introducing these new regulations and am not out of sympathy with them, not least because any academic institution should be evolving in good practice and aspirations, it has nevertheless been my experience that a student enters into a contractual understanding at the point of enrolment for a degree programme and can therefore continue those degree studies under the regulations in existence at that initial point of entry. Only students informed at or before their sign up onto a course are then obliged to abide by the newly introduced regulations. Whilst this is rather complex until all registered students are through their current l course, surely this is a fairer way to proceed.

    1. Gareth 7 September 2012 at 6:43 pm

      Hi Esther

      Thanks for your comment. Your suggestion is perfectly fine in principle and was considered as an approach to implementing this change. However while it would work if we were reducing a previously fixed limit to a shorter one, it was found to be unworkable because there was no overall time limit previously. Imagine a student who enrolled in a considerable time ago and completed level one. Since that point they have not re-enrolled. In the absence of time limit, we could never be certain that the student did not intend to complete their degree. So we would have to maintain the option for that student to return at any point in the future and at that point take as long as they wanted to complete a degree.

  3. Jocelyn Harwood 7 September 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Esther, you raise a very valid point. I have just completed my 3rd OCA module, starting each one as soon as finishing the previous, and requiring extensions for all. When I signed up for my first module a major consideration was the fact that I could complete each module in the time it took rather than having deadlines to meet, immensely important as I juggle it alongside work and family commitments like many OCA students. This is now a very different situation, and I sincerely hope the OCA will continue to support its students like me and I presume others to achieve our goal of gaining a degree, even if we do not quite manage to complete within these newly set time constraints.

  4. Sherry 7 September 2012 at 11:33 pm

    If I had known about this when I signed up for more courses before the 1st Sept deadline, I might have chosen differently.

    1. Gareth 8 September 2012 at 6:46 pm

      Hi Sherry

      If you are having second thoughts as a result of this change, I am sure we can refund the cost of these courses. I have emailed you.

  5. Laticia 8 September 2012 at 9:18 am


    I have a couple of questions: I am currently in the middle of my second level 1 course. How long do I have to finish for the degree? I presume this will be four years from today to complete this second level 1 course and the third level 1 course, then four years for level two and four years for level three?

    Also: What if I complete say level two in three years. Do I then have 5 years to complete level 3?

    And a final question: If I finish a level in the four years, can I take a breather for a couple of months and then start on the next level without the time out being added to the time it takes me to complete a level?

    I am not keen on rushing through the course, but I think this will actually help to keep up the momentum.


    1. Gareth 8 September 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Hi Laticia

      Yes, you have 12 years to complete from now. The four years per level is a target rather than an absolute limit, so there is some flexibility there. I am sorry but the clock does not stop if you take time out between levels – one of the reasons for this change is to ensure the knowledge ou acquire en route is still current when you exit with your degree. Some would argue that even 12 years is stretching it in this sense, but we think it represents the best compromise between flexibility for students and maintaining the currency of the degree.

      1. Laticia 9 September 2012 at 10:47 am

        Hi Gareth

        Thanks for the clarification. I need to keep a carful eye on the clock from now on. I do think this 12 year limit will help me to focus and keep the course at the forefront – basically make it part of my life at all times, which it should be anyway. Based on what you say I can more or less ignore the ‘4 years per level’ and look at the course as a 12 year completion from today? If so, as I am in the middle of the second level one course this will give me a little extra time if needed with future courses.

        Thanks for your help

  6. AmandaJ 8 September 2012 at 1:37 pm

    HI Gareth
    Very glad this is not retrospective as I am probably one of the few students who has taken advantage of the two year limit per course. I have studied continuously without a gap and am now on my last module. I have been studying for just over 12 years. However, when I started, OCA did not offer a full degree programme so I can understand why these changes have been made.

  7. Joy Boatman 8 September 2012 at 9:00 pm

    What about those of us who have enjoyed studying for its own sake and had no intention of taking a degree – are we now obliged to submit work for assessment? When I first started taking courses with the OCA this was not the case, but now it seems the OCA has changed its ethos and is entirely degree oriented.

    1. Gareth 9 September 2012 at 7:12 am

      Hi Joy

      I don’t think we have changed our ethos. We are still very keen to attract students who wish to study for personal development. What has changed is the number of students coming to us wanting to study degrees – I think this change is largely driven by changes elsewhere. There is absolutely no obligation to submit for assessment and no time limits for personal development learners beyond the 24 month limit for any individual course.

      1. Joy Boatman 9 September 2012 at 12:48 pm

        Thanks Gareth, that’s very reassuring. And I’m impressed by the Sunday reply.

  8. Judy 9 September 2012 at 8:18 am

    If the average student takes 15 months to complete a course, the average level 1 student who doesn’t attempt more than one at a time will take 45 months. That gives a cushion of just 3 months to stay within the new target.

    A student straying just 7% over average completion times will be in trouble.

    Does completing a course include the assessment process? That would tighten the timeframe still more, especially for the final (level 1) course when you can’t be working on something else (level 1) while waiting for the next assessment period.

    I’m still in my first level 1 course, over 12 months down the track (drat those work and family responsibilities). I think it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have started with this “target” in place. Lucky for me I suppose, and tough luck for others.

    1. Gareth 9 September 2012 at 6:31 pm

      The logic in your comment Judy is precisely why the 4 years per level is a target (ie not a binding limit). The binding limit is the 12 years. No one is going to be in trouble for straying over the level 1 target time of 4 years.

      There is an important reason why you should not extrapolate from the time taken to complete the first course. On the first course, at the same time as you are learning your subject you are also learning to learn through Open Learning. This does make a difference – which is why the level 2 and 3 courses (which are 50% bigger than the level one courses) do not typically take students much more time.

      1. Judy 9 September 2012 at 10:43 pm

        Thanks Gareth

        I guess I read too much into the word “target”. I tried to check the exact wording in the Student Regulations (student-regulations-11-12.pdf), but it referred me to the Academic Regulatory
        Framework in the Student Regulations, which I haven’t been able to find yet.

        My extrapolation was based on the average you gave rather then my experience.

        It seems the focus of the change is on people who need/want to take a break, and people in level 1. Higher levels still have 2 courses, two years each, fitting nicely into the 4 year target.

        I understand the academic rationale to an extent, but if someone is working steadily but a bit slowly I don’t see why their critical thinking skills would be falling behind – they’re getting feedback each assignment. Actually taking a break is different.

        As I’ve said, I have no personal concern in this, having already made a start. I’ve previously completed a part-time degree (BSc, computer science) which took me around 10 years. There were changes in pre-requisites over that time meaning some extra effort was required in later courses to fill gaps, but nothing too challenging.

        I’m thinking more of the person I was, working through assignment 2 (which took me 6 months). If I had that target over my head (being a person who takes targets seriously) it would have added yet more stress to a difficult and discouraging period.

  9. anned 9 September 2012 at 11:04 am

    Gareth I think there is something wrong with the pagination on the link to the new regs as there appears to be 20 pages repeated. I was trying to see what other changes have been introduced but failed due to the number of pages to read through and the fact I can’t find the old regs…..
    Is it possible to provide some sort of summary of other changes ?

    1. Gareth 9 September 2012 at 6:45 pm

      Hi Anned

      I have asked Paul to check the downloadable version of the document. There are lots of changes associated with the move to UCA, but these are not significant, eg changes to job titles and addresses. The two changes identified above are the only significant ones for students.

      1. anned 9 September 2012 at 9:10 pm

        OK thanks Gareth

        1. Stan Dickinson 10 September 2012 at 10:24 am

          Anne – it might be helpful for you, and other students, to be aware that three members of the OCASA Committee, who also attend TLC, have read through the new regulations on your behalf, more than once, and survived the ordeal :-)! We highlighted to OCA where we thought the changes were significant or where there were areas that needed clarification. Apart from a lot of small detail, these changes are the most significant.

        2. anned 10 September 2012 at 11:47 am

          Stan – I’m sure all OCA students will join me in saying thanks for that!

  10. Sherry 14 September 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I think there is a principle at stake here. I do find the timing of these new regulations rather unfortunate and I doubt whether I am the only one.

    The 12-year decision was made public after people like myself may have enrolled on other parallel academic courses at other institutions with a September start, or taken on OCA courses outside of a degree, in advance of the 1st September price change deadline.

    Offering a refund doesn’t really deal with the problem of the goal-posts having been changed after the event.

    I think there should be a one-year ‘cooling off’ period as a gesture towards re-establishing a fair and level playing field.

  11. Sally Sewell-Alger 16 September 2012 at 7:17 pm

    My husband has lost his job. I will now be working full-time until he finds another one. ( Already coming up a year)I have lost my flexibility and you have lost yours. Its a hopeless case.

  12. carrie 19 September 2012 at 10:04 pm

    I can see the reasoning for an overall time limit and the need to keep current, but it is a shame that the goal posts are moving again.
    It seems that every time the OCA change governing university there are significant changes to the regime.

    The flexibility which was always a huge plus to studying with OCA ( in respect of time / work /family/ life balance , and in respect of saving the funds to pay for the study, course and materials) will be lost.
    I have been studying with OCA since about 2004 , I have completed 2 out of the 3 level 1 courses, and have almost finished my 2nd level two course.

    Despite best intentions , I have never managed to complete a course in the time scale and find that a 12 month course usually takes me 18 months, and in two occasions I have had to apply for time extensions on health grounds.

    So, I have three courses still to go for a degree.. I’d love to complete them asap , but if I can’t manage it, how long do I have to do the Level 1 course? and how long to do the two level 3 courses?

    Do we still get a Certificate / Qualification ( used to be called an HND ) on completion of level 2? Is that the equivalent of a Foundation Degree now ?
    Does the new accrediting university offer a foundation “top up ” that can be studied at their campus?

  13. Anne Dawson-Shepherd 23 November 2012 at 4:22 pm

    My question is to Garath and to the student representatives. I share the many concerns outlined above so will not repeat them here. My question following on from that of Esther Ward above is a LEGAL question. Many of us have started a degree with the OCA and invested considerable funds in the courses which we have purchased. Under this contractual arrangement there was no time limit. Is the OCA legally able to change the rules on us part way through. It may mean that students have paid for part or even most of a degree course which they are now no longer able to finish. The reasons for the new rules maybe perfectly valid that is not the issue. As a student you assess whether or not you can commit to a degree course based on the conditions pertaining at the time that you start. I am not aware that I have ever seen anything in the OCA documentation given to students before they start which gives OCA the legal right to change the time limit for students at any time during their degree. If this exists I certainly haven´t seen it. In the absence of any such document and its distribition at the time of enrollment I don´t believe the OCA can do this legally. I would be grateful and it seems so would many others for clarification on this point. Kind regards

    1. Gareth 28 November 2012 at 12:00 pm

      Hi Anne

      Thank you for your question. I will reply on the legal question you have raised and then email you personally to address any concerns you might have about your personal situation.

      In legal terms, each time they enrol OCA students enrol on a course and we undertake to provide tuition on that course for 2 years. This is the contractual situation.

      So we are not breaching any contractual arrangements with the introduction of an overall time limit for completing a degree. There are sound educational reasons for the change as I explained in the article. This leaves the moral issues associated with making such a change. Even though it is legitimate to make this change in a legal sense, clearly we would not want to act unfairly. It is for this reason that we have not made the degree time limit retrospective, which means that students part way through their studies do have 12 years from September to complete their studies.

      As this announcement is now a couple of months old we will be closing the thread to further comments, but if students have any concerns about time limits they should email enquiries@oca-uk.com