The University is designed to meet the needs of mature, working adults for whom a fully residential educational experience is not possible or desirable. The use of mentored learning in a one-to-one setting is the preserve of the oldest and most exclusive universities today, and is at the heart of the University’s learning provision. The University approaches this traditional way to learn in a flexible and student-centered manner so as to maximize the opportunities available. These opportunities include the possibility of fully non-residential routes to doctoral awards.
Most students at the University meet in-person with their mentors, but when this is not possible, telephone and email or Skype communication can substitute. However, the University does not offer any courses online. During mentored sessions, usually weekly, the mentor will assess and discuss the student’s reading and written work, direct their further reading, suggest any outside resources that might be beneficially brought into the programme, and generally guide the student so that they understand and can meet the University’s requirements for their chosen programme. Although most mentoring is one-to-one, in some cases a number of the University’s mentors also undertake part of their work in small tutorial groups where possible. On campus, a full class programme may be in place that can be supplemented by mentoring.
Effectively, students can design their own programme subject to University approval. This is a highly rewarding but undeniably demanding way to study and is suitable only for students with considerable motivation and organizational skills. Although the mentor system offers plenty of support and guidance, it is not in any sense a “spoon-feeding” experience and prospective students should satisfy themselves before enrolling that they are prepared for the challenges involved.
The learning contract
The University’s programme structure is deliberately flexible so as to allow the student a high degree of autonomy and the means to create a largely bespoke programme structured around specific interests and needs. The heart of the student’s programme at the University is the learning contract. When making application, the student will be asked to outline clearly the route that they intend to take towards the goal of their chosen degree; the studies they intend to undertake and the means by which they intend to demonstrate their learning. This may be a programme of systematic enquiry or research leading to the completion of a dissertation, or a series of essays and extended written assignments that explore a number of related areas within a given field or in an interdisciplinary way (interdisciplinary study in theology and religious studies being a particular strength of the University). In some cases, such as programmes in church music or other practical areas such as ministry, the assessment may take a form other than written work.
It is usual for the learning contract to take some time to prepare and this is often the subject of lengthy discussion between the student, the mentor and the University, which must approve all learning contracts as well as any changes to a learning contract that may become necessary while the student is mid-course. The question of the availability of learning resources is often of importance, and the student is encouraged to explore widely to find the best materials to bring to their studies. The University can supply students with letters of credence to allow them to access reference collections where needed, and mentors are also a key resource in this aspect.
Although mentors are usually able to guide students as to what amount and level of work is necessary to reach a given set of assessment criteria to earn the degree that is sought, the University has model frameworks available in the most common subjects which can be used as templates for programme structure where needed. It is also possible to map a programme to frameworks provided by other educational institutions and thus effectively for the student to “challenge” each component of the framework by demonstrating equivalent learning in their own chosen way.
Beginning and ending a course
There are no formal start or end dates and it is possible to begin a programme at any time of the year. There is a recurring liability for fees each calendar year on the anniversary of enrolment, so students are advised to plan their workload to reflect this.
A student graduates at any time of the year when they are notified by the University that they have completed the requirements of their programme to a satisfactory level and have paid all fees due. The degree diploma and other graduation documents are sent by postal mail. However, the University does hold regular convocation ceremonies at which graduates may opt to receive their degrees formally from the officers of the University wearing the traditional academic dress of cap and gown. Recent ceremonies have been held in Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Mode of assessment
It is not usual for a course to include formal examinations and thus the assessment of written work or other scholarly material is the sole basis for the award. However, it is common for a course module to end with a summative exercise that seeks to draw together the knowledge and skills previously gained. At the doctoral level there is no requirement for an oral defense of the dissertation.
External learning resources and prior learning (APL, APEL)
Many adults have acquired significant life experience, including valuable learning that is the equivalent of college study. As a non-traditional institution, the University privileges learning wherever it has occurred, and will recognize educational achievement gained outside a classroom setting for credit. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an agency of the US government, credit for life experiences can be defined as:
Credit earned by students for what they have learned through independent study, noncredit adult courses, work experience, portfolio demonstration, previous licensure or certification, or completion of other learning opportunities (military, government, or professional). Credit may also be awarded through a credit by examination program.
In addition, many adults have earned some college-level credits but have yet to convert these into a degree. The University can assist with this process, and offers “top-up” programmes by dissertation for those who have already completed the majority of their degree requirements. The use of prior learning experiences can often reduce the requirements of a degree programme very considerably, and for the highly experienced individual, may fulfil them entirely.
It is possible to bring multiple external resources into the programme for credit. The most obvious way that this is done is through the assessment of prior certificated learning (APL) and the assessment of prior experiential learning (APEL) which considers previous formal and informal learning respectively that has a bearing on the degree that is desired. The University has many years of experience in this area, including among its mentors several experts who have been professionally engaged in experiential assessment as part of national immigration processes. In addition, it is possible to take courses at other providers and accumulate these for credit towards a University award. One popular option is the “top-up award” where an existing professional certificate or diploma can be converted to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by the completion of a dissertation or professional project. Another situation sometimes encountered is the “all but dissertation” or ABD PhD candidate who has already completed the coursework component of their degree and now needs to undertake the dissertation at another institution in order to graduate.
It is also possible for external mentors to be brought into the University’s programme, subject to University approval in each case. This enables a greater breadth of expertise to be drawn upon and even the assessment of subjects in which the University does not currently appoint mentors. The external mentors, usually serving or emeritus faculty at another institution, are contracted by the student to assess the work concerned and the University then convenes a moderation panel to consider the outcome. At all points the student will have a University mentor appointed for support and academic liaison.