1969 was the year we walked on the moon. It was also the year the OU was formed, now an important beacon in the academic landscape. With over 200,000 students (none on campus), it’s easily the largest University in the UK. I personally regard it as the single greatest education institution in the UK, and it’s formation in 1969 (first students 1971) as the most important 20th century achievement in UK education. Remember that’s it has a much longer pedigree than any of the 64 post-1992 Universities. It consistently rates high on student satisfaction studies and teaching excellence, and attracts tens of thousands of foreign students every year. Remember also the way it reaches out to those with disabilities, in prison, full time employment and in the armed forces. What’s shameful is that other universities haven’t taken the model more seriously in terms of technology, content, support and tutoring.
Better option for many
1 in 4 students at the OU are aged 17 to 25, as ambitious young people want a degree without being burdened with massive debts and the much exaggerated ‘social experience’. It also reflects the increasing thirst for higher education from older, part-time students. Fees are around half that of a campus-based university and a great deal of effort is made to support those who could struggle to pay. In addition, you don’t have the ‘luxury costs’ of the drunken meander through a three year degree with accommodation, living expenses and beer money.
The module, credit system is also admirable, allowing students to progress with a set of wider set of intellectual interests at a pace that suits them. The range of qualifications and sense of clear progression is another virtue. Of course, it’s not without its problems. I, personally, think that it could do without being a ‘research’ university, and its cost base in terms of curriculum development was badly managed and expensive. It also burned £20 million is a spectacularly unsuccessful foray into the US. This was all down to poor leadership and management. I believe however, that these problems have been addressed.
OU model may be copied
I had dinner with David Willetts recently, along with the excellent Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the Open University, and several other Vice Chancellors. The OU model got a good hearing and we see signs that this government is sympathetic to the OU model being adopted, in part, by other universities. This more flexible approach to university education would save costs, provide higher quality teaching, get away from building yet more buildings and stop the whole system being fixated with the ’18 year old undergraduate intake’ model. It would drag many of our universities into the 21st century and allow us to cope with higher student numbers at a lower cost, all without sacrificing student satisfaction and teaching excellence. That would be a move towards maintaining our system as ‘world-class’.