Being as good as the best

November 5, 1999

The Open University is 30, flourishing and serving as a role model to universities around the world, as Alison Goddard discovers

"Blithering nonsense!" That's how heavyweight Tory politician Sir Iain MacLeod greeted the idea of a university open to all. Thirty years later, The Open University has become a runaway success.

It has more than 165,000 students, who in 1997 paid Pounds 75 million through fees - an OU degree typically costs Pounds 3,500. Funding council income of Pounds 122 million plus industry and research contracts took the OU's total income to more than Pounds 200 million.

As governments worldwide examine strategies for raising the numbers entering higher education, the OU is being held up as a role model. Only last week it announced that it was working with two of Brazil's federal universities to introduce the country's first distance-learning courses.

Providing high-quality learning materials and ensuring personal contact between students and locally based tutors is the key to the OU's success, said its vice-chancellor, Sir John Daniel.

"When The Open University started up in 1970, distance learning meant correspondence education, which meant commercial providers and lower quality provision. Some of the United States start-ups have some of the dangers associated with being a commercial provider," he said.

The OU flourished thanks to strong government backing in the early days, Sir John believes. "It was a government priority, it had pretty good advisers and the founding vice-chancellor was able to conceive something quite new. Jennie Lee (then minister for the arts, who set up the OU) was determined that The Open University would be as good as the best universities. The amazing thing is how much they got right."

One of the OU's most enduring images - the now-dated television programmes featuring enthusiastic lecturers sporting beards and corduroy flares - had its roots in this political support. "The relationship with the BBC was important. The plain fact of being on television for 20 hours a week alerted people to the existence of the OU and the possibility that they might want to become students," said Sir John.

Making television programmes also allowed the university to forge partnerships with other academic institutions, making it a collaborator rather than a competitor.

"We involved academics at other universities, presenting the BBC programmes, acting as tutors and external advisers. The OU made friends with the existing academic structure, whereas in the US, (commercial providers) are making enemies," Sir John said.

Partnerships then extended to links with overseas universities. "We didn't set out to go overseas, we were pulled by students who had moved and who we thought should be allowed to continue their courses. A group of students in Brussels pointed out that if there were the same number of OU students in Brussels as in York, then they should have the same support," said Sir John.

Since then, the OU has developed links with institutions in Central and Eastern Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa.

The most recent link, with two universities in Brazil, will see OU material for mathematics and sciences courses being translated into Brazilian Portuguese and delivered by the Federal University of Para and the Federal University of Ceara.

In the US, however, the OU has forged a different partnership. It set up a sister organisation with the Western Governors University, a virtual university that offers students access to online courses provided by a range of institutions based in the western states.

However, the partnership has stagnated and the US-OU is forging ahead through other partnerships. It has already enrolled its first students on courses leading to American qualifications and is seeking full accreditation from the Middle States Colleges and Universities Commission.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, the OU is looking to expand its student numbers. "I am sure there is growth in the UK market, particularly at postgraduate and sub-degree level," said Sir John.

"At sub-degree level, the take-up of Higher National Diplomas is not at the level that the government wanted. I think the idea of associate degrees has a lot of merit to it. Rightly or wrongly, people like the term 'degree' and they like to think they have been doing university study. So if we can combine vocational with academic, that would be attractive.

"Then there is lifelong learning. As more younger people participate in higher education, more older people think that they should do so too."

The OU is adept at knowing the government's mind and adjusting to suit government priorities. It has just created a centre for widening participation, for example. It has also been approved as a supplier to University for Industry. And it is trying to position itself as the major provider of the training that will be required for existing and new academics to be accredited by the Institute for Learning and Teaching.

The government has identified that the country needs more doctors, and the OU is developing a foundation course for medicine in collaboration with the medical schools. Students who have completed the course would be able to enter directly into the third year of medical school. The OU has also set up an access agreement with individual medical schools that allows students who have taken a certain combination of the OU's biology courses to enter medical school.

Expansion will also come from new technologies. The OU has a Knowledge Media Institute where researchers develop new ways of delivering learning to students. At present, the OU has only one programme that is entirely web based, but it is exploring the possibility of delivering more courses this way. "We could also set up programmes where students do not meet their tutors. It is all done by email. We are taking that gently," said Sir John.

Personal contact with tutors and partnerships overseas are likely to remain the main strengths of the OU, however. "In this era of globalisation, when we are looking at opening up enrolments worldwide, we are lucky because once we get to a certain size, we have to have a local presence, which we establish through partnerships. The success of The Open University depends on its excellent learning materials and personal support."

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