YOU would expect to see Royal Shakespeare Company actress Joanne Pearce on stage, but perhaps not giving a speech at an Oxford University graduation ceremony.

But Ms Pearce is not just a famous face; she’s an alumni from the Department for Continuing Education.

The department works with more than 13,500 students of all ages, providing more than 1,000 short and part-time courses for people who are turning to education later in life.

In 2008, Ms Pearce received a foundation certificate in history after completing a two-year part-time course, and then moved on to St Edmund Hall to become a full-time undergraduate.

She said: “I was scared at first. I didn’t think I could do essays and exams and everything while doing my job.

“But everyone just bent over backwards to let me do it.

“I was in a play at the time and they didn’t hold performances on Mondays so I could go to my tutorials.

“When it was exam time I couldn’t make the exam because I was in a matinee performance and they opened the college for me first thing in the morning so I could do the exam by myself.”

The Kingston Blount resident said: “Everyone there is just so encouraging and wonderful. They all want you to be there and push yourself as far as you want to.”

Ms Pearce, who has appeared opposite Kenneth Branagh as Ophelia in Hamlet, said: “It’s given me so much more confidence in my work.

“I direct and write as well now, which I never did before.”

Oxford University was one of the first universities to encourage adults to learn part-time.

The first of the university’s Oxford extension lectures was delivered in 1878, and the department – then called the University of Oxford Delegacy for Extra-Mural Studies – was officially founded in 1924.

Dr Elizabeth Gemmill is a lecturer in local history and one of the department’s course directors.

She said: “This is for people who haven’t gone to university in the normal way.

“It’s an opportunity for them to do university for the first time, or have a second chance to do a subject they have never done before.

“Lots of our students have full-time jobs, work at home, have caring commitments, or are retired.”

The Beckley resident said: “It’s a special community of scholarship.

“The way you impart information to adults is very different and a special thing.

“Adult students tend to have a lot of experience of the world, more so than 18-year-olds.

“They can see the relevance of things much more, and relate that to things they have done.”

Dr Gemmill said that, while teaching time is less than traditional courses, the department has different pressures than other departments at the university: She added: “Because many of our students come back year after year, we have to change the courses all of the time.

“They want something new, so we have to change our syllabuses much more than normal courses.”


  • Len Puhm and Shweta Shivakumar

IT’S not just part-time students that the department supports.

Shweta Shivakumar, 24, did an eight-month full-time postgraduate diploma in international wildlife conservation practice.

She said: “I used to be a microbiology lab worker, so I didn’t have any formal qualifications in this area.

“But I had a lot of field experience. They took that into account.”

The Oxford resident, originally from Bangalore, said: “It was the perfect course in terms of the curriculum, it had everything I wanted to do.

“We could also do a month of correspondence learning before the course even started, which helped me prepare for the course. It was brilliant. I did more work than I have ever worked in my life.”

She said: “It wasn’t only the curriculum that was good, it was the other students.

“They came from all over the world so you learned from their field experiences and it gave me that confidence of having contacts in different places.”

Meanwhile, Len Puhm, 29, received his undergraduate advanced diploma in data and systems analysis, a year-long part-time course.

He said: “As I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve become more and more involved with the technical side of business management.

“I wanted to improve my IT knowledge and skills, so looked for a course that would let me do that while I did my job.”

The Barclays project manager said: “This one seemed very relevant for what I do on a day-to-day basis in my job.

“We essentially had to come up with a new computer system for a library. It was very intense.”

Mr Puhm, from London, said: “For me, doing a full-time course and a full-time job would have just been impossible.

“It was quite flexible for the many hours it required, but it was still hard work.”


  • Julie Whyman

JULIE Whyman, 51, received her foundation certificate in English literature, a two-year part-time course, and is now working on a part-time masters in Literature and Arts.

She said: “I’m self-employed and I have been very busy running my PR consultancy business and bringing up my two children Alex and Stefanie.

“I decided it was time to make a change.

“I’d always wanted to do English literature, I considered it when I did my original German degree in my youth. It was something that had always been nibbling away at me.”

The former Jericho resident, who moved to Heswall in Merseyside last year, said: “Being part-time lets me do my job, but it also lets me indulge in my passion.

“I can take the time to really explore my fields of study. It’s a lifestyle, rather than just going for a certificate.

“I’ve become so excited by learning again, it’s become quite addictive”

She added: “It’s absolutely changed my life, my attitude has changed.

“I’ve got more confidence to try things I wouldn’t have done before, even outside of education.

“For example, I’ve expanded my business to be international, which is just so exciting.”


  • Toby Quash

TOBY Quash, 36, received his undergraduate diploma in creative writing — a two-year part-time course.

The theatre director and writer from Stratford-upon-Avon said: “The course fed into something that I really, really wanted to do.

“The education is almost wasted on the young, you don’t approach it with the same level of dedication and seriousness as an adult.”

The father-of-two – five-year-old Tom and Matilda, who is seven-months-old – said: “There are real-life constraints, like family, children and work, and this meant I could do this in a realistic manner.

“They expect you to work independently, but you can do it in a way that suits you around your other life.

“It was a nice opportunity to be able to push a career development and further my education.”

He added: “The course was fantastic. It was an opportunity to move away from just working within the theatre community.

“I want to broaden my career into other forms of writing, like novels, poetry, even non-fiction.”

He said: “To think that the only students of value at the university are ones who have just left school narrows the field too much.

“We are valuable to the university and wider Oxford life.

“Lots of my colleagues are now staying in Oxford to do further studies.”