Fears of “dumbing down” as OU considers cuts

Science department’s internal document proposes shorter courses and changes to practical work. Hannah Fearn reports

July 7, 2009

The Open University is planning to shrink its undergraduate science curriculum in a controversial cost-cutting move.

A document outlining proposed cost-saving measures in the science department, which was passed to Times Higher Education, states that the OU is considering scrapping its named science degrees and offering just one undergraduate course, a BSc in “Natural Science”.

The briefing paper, by Phil Potts, dean of science, says the new Natural Science degree will also “allow some reduction of the total number of modules (courses) required to support this qualification”. The paper states that the university will suffer a 10 per cent fall in teaching funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, as a result of the Government’s decision to cut funding for students taking qualifications at an equivalent or lower level than those they hold (ELQs).

It says that the science department must also have in place a contingency plan for a further 10 per cent cut in 2010 “linked to the widely held view that the Government will reduce funding to the UK higher education sector (including the OU) because of the need to reduce public spending”.

The cuts mean it is not able to continue to maintain its current staff levels or curriculum.

As well as cutting courses, the department is also considering withdrawing its residential schools and replacing them with “equally effective but more economical ways of teaching practical science”.

“We now believe there are exciting alternatives to our present residential schools in delivering practical work,” it said.

A member of The Open University Student Association, a postgraduate in the department of management and science, said: “As a current student, I am concerned that this ‘dumbed down’ degree will not be as respected and may affect students’ chances of getting a degree-related job or of being accepted to further study. The Open University is a unique institution and should be supported – not undermined – by the Government if they are really serious about inclusion in higher education.”

Kate Allen, a geosciences undergraduate shortly to complete her degree, said she was “absolutely gutted” about the plans to overhaul the science curriculum.

The Open University argues that the number of people graduating in named science degrees is declining but in my field – geoscience – the number of people claiming a BSc is rising steadily – 48 in 2006, 71 in 2007 and 91 in 2008,” she said. “The removal of fieldwork opportunities will severely hamper students’ employability once they graduate. It is simply nonsense to say a science degree with fieldwork experience is equivalent to one without it.”

She added: “Prospective students are likely to vote with their feet and deny the OU further income as a result of this, to the point at which science degrees in general could become financially unviable. This is a sad day for the OU and makes a mockery of the government’s rhetoric on lifelong learning.”

Tom Sperlinger, director of lifelong learning for English at the University of Bristol, said the proposed cost-saving measures represented the second phase of the impact from the government decision over ELQs. “The provision that survived the initial culls often did so at a cost or in isolation, and thus it is vulnerable as wider cuts in higher education loom,” he said. “The result is a vastly reduced curriculum for adult students, and in this second phase the damage is clearly spreading beyond the arts and humanities, which bore the brunt of the initial cuts.”

Professor Potts said no decisions for change had yet been made and appropriate notice would be given if courses were withdrawn and other qualification structures changed.

“Considerable attention has been paid to the way the new curriculum will provide learning opportunities in practical science. This will be the same length in terms of hours of study as at present and there is absolutely no suggestion of dumbing down or losing rigour,” he said.

Professor Potts confirmed that the withdrawal of residential schools would not mean withdrawal of practical work in science. Present plans, at an early stage of development, would allow students to make “innovative use of ICT [and] immersive technologies to learn advance practical science skills”, he said.

“Although the proposed changes outlined here are required because of external funding drivers, we are taking advantage of these changes to plan a science curriculum for the 21st century suitable for delivery using distance learning methodology and compatible with the concept of a global online science curriculum,” he added.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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