In-person teaching campus plan ‘meets demand’ as OU model creaks

Relocation would answer Milton Keynes’ call for an undergraduate university as competition and lifelong loan entitlement threaten distance learning modus operandi 

July 5, 2023
Outdoor deck chairs at Milton Keynes Shopping Centre to illustrate In-person teaching campus plan ‘meets demand’ as OU model creaks
Source: Alamy

The Open University’s plan to move into in-person teaching at a new campus in Milton Keynes brings potential benefits for a thriving city “desperately needing a major university presence”, and comes as the lifelong loan entitlement brings potential further disruption to its existing model.

The OU said it would “prepare a business case” for “a multi-million-pound relocation of the OU’s existing campus in suburban Milton Keynes to a new site adjacent to the central railway station” and including “a proposal for a new ‘sister university’ serving students who want to study the OU’s famous online courses in person”, alongside continued distance learning.

In January, Milton Keynes City Council’s leader reacted angrily after the rejection of a bid to the government’s Levelling Up Fund to support a £400 million MK:U campus, a joint project between the city council and Cranfield University. The aim of creating a university with an undergraduate population “remains one of the key objectives we have as a city council”, Pete Marland said then.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, had previously called for the OU to consider moving into in-person teaching to meet the demand for a fully fledged Milton Keynes university.

“As a local, I know Milton Keynes desperately needs a major university presence beyond the sort of provision it already has in and nearby from the OU, Cranfield, Buckingham and others,” he said.

Milton Keynes, he argued, “has grown despite not having a university. If it is to move to the next stage, and to become a properly great city, it needs more focus on research and high skills.”

The OU declined an invitation to explain the thinking behind its plans in more detail. But as well as the pull factors from a city council wanting a campus university, there are push factors at the OU: it has been hit by a collapse in enrolments in part-time education, while heavy investment in the online degree platform FutureLearn has also failed to pay off, with the institution selling its 50 per cent share last year.

Claire Callender, professor of higher education studies at the UCL Institute of Education and at Birkbeck, University of London, who emphasised that she was “very supportive” of the OU, said the institution's student numbers “have continued to fall since the 2012 student funding reforms...and the use of distance learning teaching techniques is now far more widespread”.

But it may also be that the OU “wants to take advantage, if it goes through, of the lifelong loan entitlement”, she added.

Tim Blackman, the OU vice-chancellor, wrote in a foreword to a recent Hepi report on the LLE – which will give people in England access to loans worth the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over the course of their working lives – that aspects of the reform “perpetuate the inequities of the current system”, including “the continuing exclusion of most distance learning students from maintenance loans”, also warning against domination of the LLE by “the full-time undergraduate degree, especially the costly residential versions”.

The LLE is also likely to increase the competition faced by the OU in its traditional market of flexible, modular provision for working adults.

“I don’t know whether face-to-face is the solution to the problem,” said Professor Callender, highlighting the challenge there would be in taking the OU’s experience in being “incredibly skilled at providing lifelong learning” and “transferring the very important networks [and] support structures [for distance learners] to in-person teaching”.

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