The Open University does, as Ormond Simpson argues, need to rediscover a personal touch (“The Open University needs to make it personal”, Letters, 10 March), but that in itself cannot be the solution to the massive problem of retention and progression.
In a university where half of new students – the vast majority on tuition fee loans – fail their first year of study or do not progress further, serious questions must be raised about what the OU is for. Is its open access policy as currently operated sustainable? It has to be dishonest and morally bankrupt to recruit students whom it knows will fail and leave indebted – how can this be consistent with a widening participation agenda?
Even if the OU doesn’t care, the government should mind whether universities retain (through to completion of their study goals) the widening participation students they have successfully recruited – or is it too playing the game of a higher education system that “piles them high” but doesn’t want to worry about the consequences?
And Pete Gubbins is right that the increase in cost of OU study and the access to part-time loans has dampened the market for part-time study at the OU as elsewhere, but there is a bigger factor in play – the wider impact on demand for part-time adult higher education of the massive increase in the proportion of 18-year-olds going to university, now almost 50 per cent. The OU was created when less than 7 per cent of adults had degrees; there was real demand for university-level education from skilled and semi-skilled workers as well as those in careers that were to become professionalised via accreditation. Now there is not only falling demand for part-time study but also a far higher proportion of academically weak students entering the OU (those older students with high levels of previous education who used to study there out of personal interest or for “leisure” are not now motivated to take out a loan – but they were the ones who completed degrees).