Backwoods Canadian at Open University

November 11, 1994

When Sir John Daniel applied for the post of vice chancellor of the Open University in 1990 he was not an obvious choice. Although he had taught at the OU in the summer of 1972, he did not expect the British establishment to go for someone who had been out of the country for more than 20 years.

He is described in Learn and Live, the brochure published earlier this year by the OU to celebrate its first 25 years, as a "French-Canadian trapper from the backwoods of Alberta". Sir John, like the institution he heads, has moved into the mainstream of British higher education.

The big change came with the 1992 Education Act, which affected the OU more than any other university. It ceased to be funded by the Department for Education, and came under the wing of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. For the first time, the university was funded by the same body that supported the rest of England's higher education institutions.

The transition went well and brought the OU more money. It has also allowed the OU to make the most of the funding council's encouragement of part-timers. This year there were 130,000 course enrolments -- a 10,000 increase on 1993.

Student fees have increased over the past four years since Sir John's arrival, but even so, with student grants being cut, the discrepancy between those getting grants and free tuition and those forced to pay their own fees is narrowing.

"At one time our students clamoured for mandatory grants, but not any more," says Sir John. "When the grant system crashes in higher education as a whole, we will be in a strong position."

But the OU is doing more than just growing. Its very nature is changing. "We have spent the last 25 years dealing with the mass media. We are now coming to terms with the personal media," says Sir John. Students are no longer sitting on the sofa, ten feet away from a television. They are sitting a foot from a computer terminal -- and interacting with it.

In January the OU will run its first course where students have to have access to a CD-Rom. The possibilities are enormous. Where once OU courses were criticised for their lack of feedback, now students can send their essays down a line via a modem and have them marked almost immediately -- depending on the efficiency of their tutor. They can also tap into libraries. This raises tricky copyright issues, but also opens up enormous opportunities.

These computer links are vital in the countries of east Europe and the former Soviet Union. "I was in here last Saturday and I found a message on email from someone in Estonia," says Sir John. "I tapped in a reply and was answered in the half hour." The possibility of by-passing the post, and extending the OU's web to both east and west through computer links, is tempting.

The university is spreading its wings in other ways. When the Council for National Academic Awards was disbanded in 1992, nearly 200 institutions were left without a body to validate their degrees. The OU stepped in as the country's main validating body, and now acts in this capacity for over 80 institutions.

"We were keen to continue the practices of the CNAA, but also to add our own input," says Sir John. The move spread the umbrella of the OU charter, and symbolised the movement of the university from the periphery to the centre of higher education.

The university also awards National Vocational Qualifications -- the only university granted this right by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications because it met the requirement of operating nationwide.

Sir John sees NVQs as a key route to higher education for adults, and believes that the OU can help mediate the dispute between knowledge-based traditional university degrees and competency-based NVQs.

The university faced demand from many of its students for NVQs. Those on the OU's social welfare course, for example, asked if they could be awarded NVQs at the end of it as these could be used as building blocks to other educational achievements.

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