Your correspondent is quite right about The Open University’s retention problem with only 14 to 17 per cent of its students graduating within seven years (“Openly self-seeking”, Letters, 9 February). They are also correct in identifying one cause as a “recruitment versus retention” dichotomy that has come down with a too fierce emphasis on recruitment at the expense of good advice to would-be students.
But that is not the only problem. Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York, recently wrote an article titled “The Open University at 45: What can we learn from Britain’s distance education pioneer?”. Wildavsky identified a number of critical OU innovations, but the one he picked out as “the OU’s biggest accomplishment” was “combining scale with personalization”. He noted that “for many students…this personal relationship with an instructor is the key”.
Nonetheless, the university appears to be continuing with the policies of previous vice-chancellor Martin Bean, which are eroding that personalisation. There is an emphasis on technology as a substitute for personal support. The new policy of placing tutors in groups may mean that it is likely that students will have less face-to-face time with their own tutor; increasing tuition group sizes (up to 100 students in one tutor group is possible) will also make it harder for students to have an individual relationship with their tutors. And the new OU “student support teams” can never be personal in the way Wildavsky means.
Devoted friends of the OU are deeply worried for its future.
Centre for Distance Education
University of London International Programmes