Open at what cost?

March 26, 2015

The letter “Open to the challenges” (19 March) from Tim Blackman, the acting vice-chancellor of the Open University, wrongly says that our letter “Light and shade in OU student numbers” (12 March) questioned the OU’s commitment to open entry. We have not and are not questioning the OU’s mission, but we are suggesting that open entry could and should be managed responsibly.

The basic facts – which Blackman doesn’t dispute – are these: the seven-year completion rate for those entering without credit transfer is 12 per cent; and in correlation with this, of the total numbers starting entry-level first-year modules in 2013-14, more than 55 per cent failed to complete and pass their first module (equivalent to one year of part-time study). This amounts to more than 10,000 students each year failing in their first year of study. A major reason for this is that in accepting at enrolment “anybody who wants to learn”, as Blackman puts it, the OU does nothing to assess prospective students as to whether they are at a level to benefit from what the university offers, nor does it advise recruits on their likely prospects of success. Many argue that the university has a moral (never mind a financial) responsibility not to end open entry, but to manage it such that those who are unlikely to benefit from OU study are appropriately advised of their likely prospects. This is the agenda that has been sidelined and neglected in the pursuit of ever greater student numbers.

So, the question for the acting vice-chancellor and the university’s deans is this: is it in line with the historic mission of the OU to knowingly allow tens of thousands of students a year who are not adequately prepared for first-year study at the OU to take out loans and to begin courses? That is, having made no effort to first counsel applicants as to their prospects of successful study, to assess whether they have the requisite skills and capabilities as well as whether they can commit significant time to study. In short, acting vice-chancellor, what price openness that is not managed?

Names and addresses withheld

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