International New York Times: Adult Education Eases Path to Career Change


LONDON — Walking around her design studio in London’s elegant Chelsea neighborhood, Jennifer Manners pulled out a box stocked full of all different-colored yarns, from deep blues to warm grays and spirited reds. “It’s like a doctor’s kit bag,” she said jokingly, opening up one of the trays filled with a palette of green to point out a few specific yarns. “Greens can be tricky. You would be surprised how many times we debate over which two of these colors is better.”

Ms. Manners, who moved into her studio a few months ago, uses the space for client meetings and as a place to display her custom carpets, which she designs and then has handmade in India and Nepal. She started her company, which bears her name, only a few years ago, and already has an upscale client base spread across London as well as a boutique hotel in Hampshire that will be using her carpets throughout the property.

This is Ms. Manners’s second career; before this, the Kentucky-born interior designer worked as a journalist with some major news outlets. But she found that once she had children, breaking-news hours were too erratic, and she decided to pursue a lifelong love for art and design.

She enrolled in a yearlong course in design at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins and then a second short course in Photoshop at the Putney School of Design — and she has never looked back.

“I had been interested in design my whole life, and in my case, if I had listened to my heart, I would have done something artistic had it been allowed, but everyone in my family were serious in their academic approach,” she said, adding that she instead earned a B.A. in communications.

“When I decided to change careers, I took the short course because it was ideal in that before taking too big of a jump, you can get a taste for what it is really like, what the reality of that job would be and if you need to go on to pursue a full qualification.”

It is that idea of just dipping one’s toes, as Ms. Manners did, that appeals to many in Britain who have thought about a career change but are wary of plunging into a full degree program or attempting a career switch with no relevant qualifications.

“Look at how our working lives are changing,” said Mark Malcomson, the principal of London’s City Lit, which offers dozens of short-term courses in subjects as varied as musical theater and Icelandic. “The average person will have four or five careers in their lifetime. So how do they go from one career to the next? When they were in their 20s and 30s they would never have entertained an idea of becoming, say, a jewelry designer, but by the time they are in their 40s, it is there.”

Despite the fact that in England tuition fees jumped considerably in the 2012-13 academic year because of funding cuts, many schools have actually seen their numbers for short-term students go up.

City Lit has grown 22 percent in the past five years, rising from 25,000 students in 2008 to almost 31,000 in 2013. And at University of the Arts (of which Central Saint Martins is a part), short-term course enrollment has gone up 20 percent over the past five years.

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Though there are no statistics on how many students taking short-term courses actually change careers or earn further degrees in their new fields of study, anecdotal evidence suggests that these reasons are often the motivation for taking the courses.

“Lots of people take courses to see if they want to pursue a full degree because it is pricey these days,” said Stewart Smith, senior marketing manager for short courses at University of the Arts, which offers hundreds of courses a year. “So you can try before you buy.”

teacher working on laptop computer in classroom

teacher working on laptop computer in classroom

Short courses and continuing adult education have historically been popular in Britain, whether at institutions like City Lit (which started in 1919 as a literary society but also began offering courses in sign language to World War I veterans who had lost their hearing from blasts in the trenches), or through correspondence courses, now known as online learning, at places like the Open University.

The Open University is one of many institutions that offer access courses, which help people without the necessary qualifications enter into higher education programs. According to John Butcher, the deputy director of access and curriculum at the Open University, the school ran a course program called “Openings” from 2000 until last spring, which was a suite of short courses in subjects like languages and social sciences. Since the program opened, 170,000 people registered and half took up further studies. The school will offer a different course program this fall.

“We had two distinct groups,” Mr. Butcher said. “There were students who already had degrees, so say someone who worked as an engineer but wanted to take a course in art history. But there were also those who had no or low prior qualification, who may have not had a chance to explore before.”

Claire Callender, a professor of higher education policy at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, said short courses were a great option for those who might not feel confident enrolling in full-time study. “For people who did badly in high school, those experiences can be pretty negative, so this is a second-chance opportunity,” she said.

That was the case for Amanda Scales, of Brighton, who left school at 15. By her early 40s, she had had two marriages and four children and she felt adrift. A friend encouraged her to take a short belly-dancing course at a community center. At an open education day at the center, she heard about a university access course in history. She signed up and later went on to get an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Sussex. Now she holds a master’s degree in history, teaches part time and works as a guide at the Royal Pavilion museum in Brighton.

“These courses are just the most important thing,” she said. “If I had not taken that belly-dancing class, I would have never heard of these wonderful opportunities.”