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.
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.
University of Nottingham