A place to nourish your mind and body?

March 2, 2007

The OU and Tesco have struck a deal to offer discounts on degree study, but Geoff Andrews has a number of ethical concerns.

So customers of the UK's largest supermarket are to be encour-aged to become students of the UK's largest higher education institution. A deal has been struck to give Tesco shoppers the opportunity to study at the Open University at discount prices.

Depending on how much they spend when they visit a store, they will be able to exchange the Clubcard points they earn at the checkout for full or part payment towards their course. It gives a whole new take on the now familiar description of students as "customers".

But the announcement of such an arrangement has serious implications for the OU and it has opened up a heated debate among the university's academics. Many fear that by seeking to extend education to new cohorts of people in this manner, the university will end up dumbing down its educational resources.

Brenda Gourley, OU vice-chancellor, has no such doubts about the merits of the deal. She sees it as being "true" to the university's original mission - "to be open to people, places, methods and ideas". Writing in the OU's Open House magazine, she describes the Tesco tie-in as an "innovative partnership... in order to extend our reach to new students, while students themselves will be able to take OU courses without running up large debts".

And, of course, Tesco welcomes the deal, declaring to its customers that "you can now pick up the gift of learning along with your weekly shop". The supermarket chain also informs its customers of the OU's academic reputation and its high ranking for teaching quality. Both parties stress the ways in which their organisations help to extend each other's opportunities and reach new markets. Listening to the two marketing departments, it is not always easy to discern which is the voice of the university and which the grocer.

But the way that Tesco, like all major food retailers, conducts its business makes me uneasy about the alliance. In the opinion of many campaigners, the chain hardly reaches the top of the supermarket ethical league table. There are concerns about the true social and environmental cost of its business from the "food miles" associated with its many foreign products to the livelihoods of small farmers blighted by the driving down of product prices. And despite its claims of greater "fair trade", only a tiny proportion of the supermarket's products are "fair trade accredited".

A report by the charity Oxfam in 2004 criticised the major global food retailers, including Tesco, for relying on suppliers who use cheap, seasonal labour.

The chain rejects such criticisms as inaccurate and out of date and insists that it maintains high ethical standards. But Tesco's 30 per cent share of the grocery market has raised further concerns. With a new Tesco Express opening almost every day, there are wider costs for independent shops and services and for the diverse character of local communities, with several ongoing local campaigns against the chain's increasing influence in the high street.

Supporters of the deal, who have attempted to reconcile "widening participation", "value for money" and "market innovation", ignore crucial differences between the two institutions that reflect wider differences between the purposes of education and those of big business. One myth held by education leaders is that this gulf can be overcome by glossy packaging.

While Tesco reaches its customers through the power of the market, the OU's reputation for extending opportunity has come from a long tradition of independent learning that respects the diversity, rather than the homogeneity, of the population. Its idea of equality is in no way reducible to the flexibility and innovations of the market. The OU's founding ideals centre on the social benefits of education and the value of learning for its own sake.

The OU, indeed, is a unique academic community, relying on the commitment and experience of thousands of part-time tutors. In many ways, it has always had an "ethical" commitment to higher education, whether through offering a quality alternative to education on the cheap, or actively challenging discrimination and elitism.

This ethical position has distinguished the OU from the mainstream and allowed it to develop an alternative kind of educational philosophy, based on distance learning for adults from a diversity of backgrounds.

The image of the bearded, sandal-wearing academic on late-night TV may be past its sell-by date. However, the idea of students buying their degrees at a Tesco checkout (two for the price of one?) is only another utopia.

In fact, far from being a modern, cutting-edge initiative, a deal between the OU and Tesco fails to recognise the major shift going on among the new more ethically minded consumers; surely a more appropriate focus for the UK's ground-breaking university?

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University and is currently completing a book on the Slow Food movement. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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