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Higher education studies need not mean huge debts or living in poverty. Janet Murray meets two students who kept working through their studies and reaped the benefits James Elwood left school  studies with a clutch of good A-level grades, but despite pressure from his teachers to consider university he took an entry-level job as bank cashier.

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Four years and several promotions later, he works for Santander as a business manager, providing advice and support to small companies. He has also completed a degree in business studies with the Open University, which delivers all its courses via distance learning – an experience he thinks has played a key role in his success.

“When I had to write essays, I was analysing my experiences with the companies I worked for, so the process helped me become a better employee,” he explains.

Combining work with distance learning has allowed Nick Walker to set up his own business at the age of 19. He is currently taking a degree-equivalent course in games development via the online learning providertrain2game. The course typically takes about three years to complete. In the meantime, he earns an income from his app development companyIcey Monty, which he set up with fellow student John Esslemont.

According to Zoe Molyneux, external affairs and communications manager at the Studentroom, the UK’s biggest online forum for students, more young people are exploring distance and part-time learning options. “This is partly down to rising tuition fees, but also questions about whether a degree will guarantee them a job at the end. So they’re keen to find out if there are other ways of achieving their goals,” she says.

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Now 22, Elwood owns his own home and car and thinks he is “four rungs up the ladder” from friends who chose the university route. “Instead of being 22 with a degree and one year of work experience, I’ve got a degree and nearly five years of work experience behind me … I don’t regret my decision one bit.”