The Open University needs to make it personal

March 10, 2016

For those of us who worked and believed in The Open University, the news of its financial difficulties in Times Higher Education last week made for wretched reading (“Open University posts £7m loss as student numbers slump”, News, 3 March). But the financial and recruitment issues are only part of the OU’s current problems, with a graduation rate now apparently down to just 13 per cent.

In a Brookings e-newsletter last month, Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York, wrote an article entitled “The Open University at 45: What can we learn from Britain’s distance education pioneer?” Wildavsky identified a number of critical OU innovations, but the one that he picked out as “the OU’s biggest accomplishment” was “combining scale with personalization”. He noted that “for many students…this personal relationship with an instructor is the key”.

But the university appears to be continuing with the policies of the previous vice-chancellor Martin Bean, which are eroding that personalisation. The new policy of placing tutors in groups may mean that it is likely that students will have less face-to-face time with their own tutor; increasing tuition group sizes (up to 100 students in one tutor group is possible) will also make it harder for students to have an individual relationship with their tutors. And the new OU “student support teams” can never be personal in the way that Wildavsky means.

In addition, older OU colleagues will remember that the OU had a role called a “tutor-counsellor” whose job was to support students throughout all their modules to graduation. This was abolished on the grounds of both financial cost and a finding that only about 10 per cent of students had the same tutor-counsellor throughout their study careers – largely because of staff changes. But both these arguments were fallacious: the cost argument because no one looked into the financial benefits of increasing student retention through student support, and the continuity argument because for that vital switch from first to second module (where most OU dropout now occurs) some 90 per cent of students kept their original tutor-counsellor.

The OU vice-chancellor recently noted in his newsletter that OU student retention was not improving. Sadly – and I hope that I’m wrong – further depersonalisation of the OU will only make things worse.

Ormond Simpson
Visiting fellow, Centre for Distance Education, University of London International Programmes

It’s not often that I’m moved to write a letter nowadays, but after having read the comments of “Mike Boxall, a higher education specialist at PA Consulting Group”, I had to respond.

Boxall argues that the OU has been “hit by a market shift and competition for the core base”. As an alumnus of the OU, I think that the impact on the OU numbers has been caused by something wholly different.

In 2004, my first full year of part-time study, the OU fee was £475. By the time I paid for my final year’s study in 2009, the OU fee was £630.

When I examine the OU’s website today, the cost for an equivalent course for a resident of England is £2,786 (and between £893 to £1,065 for residents of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales).

Including inflation, my fee of £475 in 2004 would amount to about £671 today (and £630 in 2009 amounts to about £751). So it comes as no surprise to me that the OU numbers are in decline. The reason is a dramatic reduction in government funding for OU courses for people that reside in England. Boxall should rethink his assessment. The “catastrophe” should be laid at the feet of this government.

Pete Gubbins
PhD student
University of Nottingham

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Reader's comments (1)

Ormond Simpson's proposals are right but they cannot be the solution to the massive problem of retention and progression in the OU. They are like putting up an umbrella in the face of a hurricane. In a University where half of new students - the vast majority on 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 who it knows will fail and leave indebted - how can this be consistent with a WP agenda? For the OU aims to recruit as many students as possible, the vast majority online and without any personal advice and certainly no checks as to whether individuals have the time, skills or knowledge for successful study. Even if the OU doesn't care, the government should mind whether Universities retain (through to completion of their study goals) the WP students they have successfully recruited - or are they too playing the game of an HE system that 'pile them high' but doesn't want to worry about the consequences? Pete Gubbins is right that the increase in cost of OU study and the access to PT loans (some 85% of students entering the University since 2012 are financed by SLC) has dampened the market for part time study at the OU as elsewhere but there is a much wider picture. The OU's V-C Peter Horrocks and others campaign for government support for PT education but what is not mentioned (except perhaps in government circles) is the wider impact on demand for PT adult HE of the massive increase in 18 year olds going to University, now almost 50%. The OU was invented when under 7% of adults had degrees; there was real demand for university level education from skilled and semi skilled workers as well as those in careers which were to become professionalised via accreditation (cf. the OU trained many teachers in its early years). Now there is not only decreasing demand for part time study study but also a far higher proportion of very academically weak students entering through the OU's door (those older students with higher levels of previous educational study 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).