16/11/2012 07:05 GMT | Updated 15/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Finally, a Level Playing Field for Distance Learners

It's been a long time coming but this autumn heralds a new era for UK education. For the first time, students who want to study for their degree online have the same entitlement to tuition fee loans as those studying full time at university.

It means that distance learners can now secure upfront tuition fee loans to cover the cost of their course, rather than having to find the cash upfront - only repaying the loan when they have completed their studies and are earning more than £21,000 a year.

What difference will this make? A massive one. For many, it will make further education financially and logistically feasible for the first time. This isn't just a good thing for the individuals concerned - it's good news for the UK economy.

Youth unemployment is a problem. In the UK 18.9% of 18-24 year olds are out of work and recently, the Higher Education Careers Service Unit revealed that more than one in 10 graduates are experiencing "significant spells of unemployment".

It's little wonder then that many more young people are choosing to seize employment opportunities when they are available, in order to gain the 'real world' work skills that employers are looking for. While this scenario has never meant a complete closed door to further education, financial commitments - mortgage, child care, household bills etc. - have historically meant that, even with a monthly wage, having to pay fees up front has been a very real block to 'learning while earning'.

With that block now removed, we suddenly have a young workforce perfectly equipped to learn, earn and importantly gain the work, life and educational skills that enable them to take the next step in their career. The term NEETs is one rarely out of the news at present, which stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training. Isn't it wonderful, therefore, that these funding changes mean we could increasingly hear about those IN Education and Employment and Training?

Of course, as well as financial benefits - for the students and indeed the economy - the fact that these changes have been introduced at all has its own benefit.

Until now, there has been a false snobbery around distance learning, with online degrees too readily dismissed as being in some way 'second tier' or 'substandard'. By recognising the financial rights of distance learners, the tuition loan entitlement changes have hit this bias where it hurts - effectively saying that online learning has the same value as university-based education. This is, without doubt, a watershed for UK education that will result in a new era of opportunity.