With top-up fees about to drive up the price of a degree, the Open University is becoming the cost-conscious school-leaver's first port of call, writes John Kirkaldy
The traditional image of the Open University is as the institution for those who want a second chance. It is the place to go if you fancy a career change, need retraining or just want to take up a new leisure interest. The OU has also pioneered recruitment of previously underrepresented groups, such as women, people with disabilities and those serving prison terms, who tended to be older than typical undergraduates.
But that image could be about to change.
The OU recently launched a campaign to recruit more students from the 18 to 25-year-old age group. Figures show that the university has already begun to move away from its image as a refuge for the middle-aged. In 1996-97, only 3,900 OU students were in the 18-to-25 age group. By 2003-04, the figure was 11,500 (10.6 per cent). More than a third of those students are under 21.
The main reason for the rise in younger students is almost certainly financial. The Student Loans Company says student debt is now £14 billion, and this does not include overdrafts and credit card debts. The average student will leave university with debts of about £15,000.
The attraction of continuing to work, full time or part time, while studying with the OU is obvious. This will no doubt grow with the introduction in September of top-up fees of up to £3,000.
The average cost of an OU degree is about a third of that of a conventional university. OU students are eligible for government support and the university provides some financial help to those who are genuinely hard up.
The OU also provides flexible repayment schemes for its fees and some firms support employees' studies in whole or in part.
Kristofer Conlin, 23, did two years at Strathclyde University and then dropped out because of financial pressures, but he gained a degree with the OU. "I was much better off because I could live with my parents and I could also work," he says.
The OU is working to increase these enrolments. Last August, the university joined the University and Colleges Admissions Service to provide information about its courses during clearing. This was backed by a newspaper advertising campaign. The OU has also targeted sixth-form advisers and counsellors in schools. As part of the OU's Young Applicants in Schools Scheme, students in more than 80 schools nationwide take part in a variety of short OU courses to encourage those with the potential for higher education to stretch themselves academically.
There have, however, been problems. Retention and pass rates for the 18-to-25 age group are lower than for other groups - the latter is 9 per cent lower across all courses. Of the 4,952 younger students registered in 1996-97, only 20.7 per cent had gained an award after seven years of study - the average time is six years.
Some young students lack the organisation and discipline required for OU study. A 2003 survey of this age category in Scotland found that "the greatest mismatch was between the expectation and experience of the level of difficulty of courses, the workload, the frequency of assignments and the inflexibility of deadlines". Even so, of the students in the survey who withdrew from study, 77 per cent expressed satisfaction with their course, compared with 81 per cent of those over 25.
There is also anecdotal evidence from the OU Students' Association Younger Student Conference that the younger contingent would like more opportunities to meet fellow undergraduates.
Younger OU students differ from their older classmates in other respects.
There are more women, who generally outnumber men by two to one (the female-to-male ratio across the board is 59 per cent to 41 per cent).
Students aged between 22 and 24 tend to have more A levels than other groups. There are more students from ethnic minority backgrounds in the 18-to-25 age group than in older groups. However, there are significantly fewer students with disabilities or from foreign backgrounds in the younger cohort.
In general, younger undergraduates tend to favour different subjects from the traditional intake. Law is high on their list, while favourites of the wider OU student body include "An introduction to the humanities", "Understanding health and social care" and "Exploring psychology".
In the long term, the university will have to scrutinise its operations if it is to increase its market share of this age group. Producers of course materials will have to look at their work from a new perspective. Not all courses have an introduction to study, which young students will need. The OU recently moved the start of some courses from the traditional February date to October, which has proved popular with young students. They may share most of the problems faced by their older counterparts, but young students have special needs and require specific advice and support services - for instance, they are more likely than older students to be studying for career advancement. University promotional materials also need to emphasise that OU study requires different disciplines and skills from conventional study.
The OU will benefit from an influx of younger students. Although in recent years the number of OU students has increased, it is beginning to settle at about 150,000 undergraduates. But with increasing competition in a market-driven sector the university will have to develop links with non-traditional users in colleges and schools.
Such initiatives are to be welcomed, provided that the temptation to dumb down to attract greater numbers in any group is resisted. This tendency has harmed some distance-learning establishments elsewhere. Last September, The Times Higher ranked the OU as the top British university in a survey of students who were satisfied with their courses. The Sunday Times University Guide in 2004 made the OU fifth in all UK universities for teaching quality. I have not been asked for nearly 20 years whether an OU degree is the same as an ordinary one. It has taken four decades to gain this reputation: it could be lost far quicker.
John Kirkaldy is an associate lecturer with the Open University.
New intake, new outlook
The rise in the number of younger students is making a mark on teaching at the Open University.
I have been a part-time associate lecturer with the OU for 26 years and have seen a big change in my student groups. Last year, I taught a bright female student, aged under 21, who had not heard of the pop singer Paul Simon. He features in a section on the 1960s in the arts foundation course.
Having identified the singer, I added: "Ask your Dad about him." The next week she said: "He didn't know, but my grandfather did." She wasn't joking.
Most staff welcome the trend towards younger students but acknowledge that it will demand some changes to their teaching styles.
As an historian, I have found that detailed explanations must be given of topics that young students consider ancient history - such as Watergate; pre-decimal coinage; the miners' strike; and my beloved Southampton football team winning the FA Cup. Discussion about children and grandchildren must be reined in a little at the post-tutorial pub sessions.
But youth does have advantages. In my teaching, I have found that young students often provide a welcome new perspective on a subject.
They are also generally adept at using new technology in all its forms (which is of increasing importance in OU study).
The university is developing a handbook that will advise staff on approaches to teaching these students. Guidance is being put on tutor conference websites and training is being offered in how to deal with the challenges they represent.