Light and shade in OU student numbers

March 12, 2015

As academics at the Open University, we were interested in the report on the OU’s student numbers, which raised important questions. However, we feel that some of the OU spokesman’s statements are misleading and that they obscure some of the underlying problems facing the university (“OU’s numbers dive 28% as pool of part-timers dries up”, News, 19 February).

The OU spokesman says: “While it is true that the part-time sector faces a challenging time, our performance remains strong and we continue to perform better than the sector.” If “strong performance” is a reference to the recruitment of new students into the first year of study, then this is true, although this is a result of an aggressive marketing campaign that understates the commitment and skills needed for successful OU study. But if “strong performance” refers to the retention and progression of those students, then this is false. The OU’s retention rates are far below sector norms and, for new students, have deteriorated since the introduction of the fees-loans regime.

The OU’s own figures show that completion rates for undergraduate honours degrees over seven years for those entering without credit transfer are 12-14 per cent. The OU spokesman also claims that offering massive open online courses is “expected to create interest” for the “core credit-bearing curriculum”. However, this is also false, as an internal report to the vice-chancellor’s executive team last year confirmed. FutureLearn’s own figures (“FutureLearn ‘delighted’ at response to initial Moocs”, News, 19 June 2014) show that 82 per cent of its enrolments already have a higher education qualification and so students won’t be looking to take on OU study after doing a Mooc; and the completion rate of Mooc-starters is only about 13 per cent. FutureLearn is a distraction and a diversion from the OU’s core mission.

Martin Bean, the former vice-chancellor of the OU, warned at a meeting of the senior leadership team in summer 2012 that the OU might need to get smaller to get better, that it might need to think harder about who it recruited so that it was more likely it would keep those it recruited through to the completion of their study goals. When asked what kept him awake, Bean said first-year retention and progression. These worries were not acted on; instead the focus has been on a marketing campaign to maximise the numbers of new students each year, regardless of whether those students are still likely to be studying a year later. At the same time, the OU knew that the future was uncertain and put in place an expenditure reduction package, which left room to cope with failing to meet expected targets. However, since then, staffing – both in faculties and in project-based units – has not been tightly controlled.

Since 2011-12, internal voices that have repeatedly warned that the OU’s position is not sustainable have not been listened to.

Names and addresses withheld

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