Open learning gets tough ride

May 15, 1998

Australia's "Open University" is in serious trouble. Its top executives have quit and a third of its students have disappeared.

Last year, enrolments in Open Learning Australia were down to a mere 13,000 - from more than 20,000 only three years ago.

The decline is costing the OLA company an estimated Aus$1 million (Pounds 500,000) annually and, with a three-year federal government grant ending in 1996, revenue losses have caused an operating deficit of almost Aus$1 million.

Under attack over claims of mismanagement, nepotism and mis-spending of taxpayers' money, the OLA board cut a quarter of the 28 full-time employees, and foundation chairman Mal Logan, chief executive Tony Pritchard and general manager Elaine Atkinson, resigned.

Students who have disappeared from the OLA's rolls are believed to be mostly disadvantaged Australians, who cannot afford fees.

After receiving the last of its federal grant, the OLA raised its fees last year to Aus$425 per subject. Although students can defer payment under a loans scheme, the government only allows Aus$337 per unit, leaving a "gap fee" of $88.

But students deferring must take at least two subjects so a minimum of $176 has to be paid on enrolment. Most of those who have dropped out - such as prisoners - can no longer afford it.

OLA was one of the former Labor government's great success stories. It allocated almost Aus$30 million in its 1992 budget to open in 1993 offering young, old, qualified or unqualified the chance to study. By the mid-1990s more than 20,000 were registering each year and 18 universities were collaborating to offer courses.

As the federal grant began to dry up, eight universities agreed to pay Aus$200,000 each to become shareholders in a new OLA company. Their vice-chancellors now comprise the board.

OLA spokeswoman, Macquarie University vice-chancellor Di Yerbury, rejected staff claims of mismanagement and denied that the quality of OLA units has declined.

She also disputed suggestions that some shareholder universities - which have their own distance education centres - would prefer to close the company down.

Professor Yerbury said all shareholders are keen to see the company operate as an innovative and effective consortium and to ensure the best possible teaching packages and service.

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