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Case study: Mike Niblett

Mike Niblett, BA International Studies

“I left school at 16 and went to a British Army Sixth form college where I had to do A-Levels, but I hated it and I failed academically...

Somehow, I got into Sandhurst (the officer training college) with just seven O-Levels to my name, and I began a 23 year career as an officer in the Army which has taken me all over the world. I have served in Northern Ireland in South Armagh and West Belfast; I was in Bosnia and drove the first vehicle into Sarajevo after the ceasefire, as well as Cyprus, Germany, Belize, Kenya, Hong Kong for the handover to China, and two tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I had a very full army career and reached the rank of Major and then began considering what to do next and the best option seemed to be retraining myself to be ready for a new career. About four and a half years ago I started an International Studies degree with The Open University and I chose the OU because its flexibility fitted in with the job.

(Mike self-funded his course preferring to use his MoD Enhanced Learning Credit funding, which is available up to 10 years after leaving the service, towards his LSE Masters)

I started the first modules in 2009 while I was a military adviser in Qatar in charge of a project to set up the Qatari equivalent of Sandhurst. I started the third module on a tour in Afghanistan and then carried on in Germany.

Studying presented challenges but probably very similar to the experience of most OU students, the normal ups and downs of life which happen anyway, health issues, family and domestic stuff and work, and working in the military means you can be tired a lot of the time.

Army life also meant I studied in some unusual places. In Afghanistan I remember doing assignments sitting in the back of Chinook helicopters flying between Forward Operating Bases, and I did my final one inside my sleeping bag holding my torch in my mouth while the base was under Taliban mortar fire.

I was often afraid my laptop would get shot up or just smashed, so whenever I could get access to the internet in a base, I would download my work to a document, work on it for a while and then email it to myself. Most of my stuff was just floating around in the ether, and on one occasion I emailed an assignment nine times and worked on it in bases across Afghanistan before making sure I got it in on time.

I found my dealings with the OU were excellent, I had no issue with the quality of the materials, I received everything on time and when I lost some CDs they were replaced. The tutors were very good and sometimes it was bloody hard work, fighting for every single mark and it was not easy to get a 2:1. I got very detailed feedback from them, they were very thorough and, because of my job, when I needed it, I was able to get some extensions.

Getting my degree coincided with retirement from the army and I had planned for it. As an officer I had seen men, and officers, leave the army without preparing. I didn’t want to come out into an increasingly competitive world not having at least done some homework to ease the transition into civilian life.

I was accepted by four top universities on the back of my Open University degree and I am now doing a Masters at the London School of Economics. I am now looking at a possible new career in the international field, perhaps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or Cabinet Office, a think tank or an NGO. I am still looking.

The OU deserves huge credit for enabling me to do this. I doubt there is another institution anywhere that would have taken me from seven O-levels to the LSE in five years whilst I was holding down a busy job stretching across the globe. The three aspects that stand out for me are the quality of tuition and materials, the flexibility and the administration.”

Learn how Ian Cox transformed his career, too.

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