One of the great educational institutions founded 45 years ago by Harold Wilson’s government, the Open University, is having a tough time and is closing seven of its nine regional centres to reduce costs.
One of the few dignitaries since Henry VIII to stamp a mark on education, Wilson’s Open University (OU) concept opened the door to the tens of thousands of undergraduates from individuals who couldn’t afford living away from home, or working full time, the OU provided a new way to earn a degree.
If anything the work commitment required by an undergraduate of the OU far exceeds that of full-time students at conventional universities. With degree courses extending over five years and probably holding a full time job the OU demanded a significantly higher commitment from its under graduates over that of conventional universities. Recognising the crucial role of face-to-face contact the OU also provided tutorial support through regional centres. But these were costly appendages absorbing £5 million out of the £400 million total budget. Considerable remote coursework was also supported through TV programmes and DVDs and it is easy to assume the onset of mobile technology would have boosted the OU learning process. Ironically it had a sting in the tail.
The problem arose in the declining in numbers using the OU. The introduction of the £9,000 a year tuition fees caused a ten per cent drop in the 200,000 total part-time students but technology also took a massive bite. Most universities now offer online courses taking a further bite out of the OU numbers, which can be exacerbated by some colleges also offering free courses and content.
The OU now stands as a magnificent emblem of the seat of learning in a world that has moved on. Whereas the content offered by redbrick universities was spun out their standard teaching programme the OU needs to create it’s own unique content and yet operate in a largely free market. The OU is at a crossroads and needs a drastic rethink to evolve a future proof programme that can compete with all other universities offering on line course. The downside is whether this is achievable.
By Alistair Owens