OU must look ahead

February 23, 2017

I can reassure Ormond Simpson (“Nothing personal”, Letters, 16 February) that devoted friends of The Open University have no need to fear for its future.

Like any university, the OU needs to focus on recruitment. But it is wrong to suggest that it does so at the expense of good advice to students. We are not complacent and we acknowledge that we can always improve; indeed, we have just embarked on an ambitious programme to reshape the OU for its second 50 years.

At the heart of that initiative is a determination to put the interests and support of students at the centre of all we do. But the OU must move with the times. There is growing competition in distance learning just as the number of part-time students shrinks and central funding settlements tighten. The OU must respond to these challenges while staying true to its founding principles.

Perhaps the most important principle is that of equal access to all, regardless of previous academic success, a driver of social mobility through the past five decades. In 2015-16, nearly a quarter of our students came from the UK’s most deprived areas, and three-quarters had no previous higher education qualification. We continue to make a real difference to people’s lives.

It may be tempting in challenging times to hark back to a mythical golden age in higher education, but that does little to address the real issues with which the OU and all other universities are grappling.

Steve Hill
Director of external engagement
The Open University

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Reader's comments (2)

Steve Hill (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/letters-ou-must-look-ahead) supplies no reassurance whatsoever to Ormond Simpson (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/letters-nothing-personal) or to the other correspondent (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/letters-openly-self-seeking), and is evasive. Hackneyed phrases such as ‘we are not complacent’; ‘we acknowledge that we can always improve’; ‘a determination to put the interests of students at the centre of all we do’, etc. along with yet another statement of the obvious, the OU’s commitment to ‘equal access to all’, will not fill anyone at the OU with confidence. Hill is a member of the OU’s VCE and, as such, should be able to demonstrate some intellectual grip of the problems raised. These are the OU's appalling retention which is unacceptable in the age of fee-loans, and the steps moving the OU away from the personal support for students’ learning given by tutors. Neither of correspondents were ‘harking back to a mythical golden age in HE’ nor disputing that the OU should reject a principle of ‘equal access to all’ and it is simply disingenuous to suggest they were. Perhaps he could simply address the question: how can a University in which tens of thousands of students drop out in their first year of study and about 15% of students complete a qualification be regarded as ‘making a real difference to people’s lives’ or enhancing their ‘social mobility’? The OU is not the only University with a large WP/low PEQ population. Completion rates at other universities for part-time and socially disadvantaged students are far better. The facts remain, and it’s of note that Hill has not disabused us of them, that the OU’s recruitment strategy is irresponsible: a majority of students enrol online over 95% of whom pay on a student fee-loan, with no checks that they have the skills, competencies and time commitment to embark on degree level study. Perhaps the THE's reporters can investigate the 'ambitious' programme to reshape the OU for its second 50 years but it will hardly live up to this ambitiousness if doesn’t face its Achilles heel on behalf of the vast majority of its students whose aim is to complete a degree.

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