Open University ‘should teach students on campus’

Under-pressure distance learning provider could reap rewards by opening its main campus to traditional learners, argues Higher Education Policy Institute director

October 11, 2018
Jennie Lee Building, Open University, Milton Keynes
Source: Alamy

The UK’s distance learning university should start teaching students at its main campus to help ease its financial troubles, a sector expert has suggested.

The Open University, which has taught more than 2 million students remotely since its creation in 1969, is currently considering cutting £30 million from its £420 million annual budget in response to a sector-wide collapse in part-time student numbers since 2012.

It also wants to increase revenues, including through its loss-making online degree platform Futurelearn, which aims to increase paid enrolments from 60,000 to 1 million by 2025, according to recently announced plans to attract private equity investment.

However, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, believes that the Open University should consider moving into traditional on-campus teaching at its Milton Keynes base while also continuing distance learning.

“As other universities have muscled into the Open University’s patch of distance learning, it’s not unreasonable for them to think about diversifying too,” said Mr Hillman.

“The Open University should not be doing any less of what it already does brilliantly, but universities are diversifying what they do all the time and there is a real appetite in this part of England for another more traditional campus university.”

Milton Keynes has been regarded as a higher education “cold spot” for decades despite lying within 20 miles of the universities of Buckingham, Cranfield and Northampton. It has long desired a more traditional university and plans backed by the local council are under way to create a new university by 2023.

But diversifying the Open University’s substantial campus would be an easier win than building a university from scratch on a greenfield site, according to Mr Hillman.

“I have always been pleasantly surprised whenever I’ve visited the Open University – it has cafes, research labs, formidable teaching expertise and is very respected, so seems very well placed to make what should not be an insurmountable transition,” he said.

“Given the huge efforts over the years to get a university off the ground in Milton Keynes, it seems strange that this hasn’t been considered more seriously.”

It is believed that the idea has been mooted in the past, but ruled out because it was deemed too costly to build extra teaching rooms and student facilities.

“There’s always been a tacit agreement not to step on other universities’ toes, but maybe that doesn’t apply now,” an Open University academic told Times Higher Education. A university spokeswoman said that the institution was “not considering this idea and there are no plans to do so”.

However, Mr Hillman said that the success of Coventry University’s “no-frills” subsidiary college CU Coventry, which was opened in 2012, and Birkbeck, University of London’s three-year accelerated part-time degree showed universities could “do more than one thing – and do them successfully”.

“With its strong reputation and history, it seems the Open University would have a massive head start over any new higher education provider seeking to establish itself in this area,” said Mr Hillman. He added that given the search for new revenue streams, “maybe the time is right to make this change”.

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