The evolving, devolving OU

May 5, 2000

As Shefc takes over its funding, the Open University prepares to take on an even greater role north of the border, writes Olga Wojtas

A year after the elections for Scotland's devolved parliament, devolution has come to the Open University north of the border.

Until now, the OU's 13,000 Scottish students have been funded from Westminster, latterly through the Higher Education Funding Council for England. But teaching funds will now come from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, putting the OU on equal terms with other Scottish universities.

"We regard ourselves as an integral part of Scottish higher education, and need to be part of the policy loop," said Peter Syme, director of the OU in Scotland. "In the past, we have not always been eligible to take part in initiatives set up and funded in Scotland. Now we will be able to make our full contribution in developing Scotland's lifelong learning agenda."

The Scottish Parliament has warmly welcomed the OU's new status. Presiding officer Sir David Steel said: "The OU embodies many of the ideals on which the Scottish Parliament was founded; openness, responsiveness and, of course, accessibility." Lifelong learning had been a key principle of the OU well before it was a fashionable phrase in education or government, Sir David said.

Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, Henry McLeish, said: "The OU will be an important player in developing Scotland as a learning nation."

In a radically different setting from south of the border, the OU is Scotland's largest provider of part-time university education. Part-time students are still only a small part of Scottish university provision. The OU in Scotland has 42 per cent of funded part-time undergraduates, with the other 58 per cent divided between 18 universities and colleges.

Shefc is pressing institutions to offer more part-time courses, and the Scottish Executive has introduced fee-waiver schemes for the poorest students, but Mr Syme said the student support system is essentially based on full-timers. The OU made a trenchant submission to the Cubie inquiry on student support, maintaining there was no equitable basis for a distinction to be made between full and part-timers when considering students' financial needs.

The OU's Scottish intake is up by 36 per cent on 1999, which Mr Syme sees as proof of the increasing demand for higher education at different stages of people's lives.

The OU has been the traditional provider in the north of Scotland, but Mr Syme denies that it is being undermined by the federal University of the Highlands and Islands, a high-tech network of further education colleges and research institutes. The UHI has won validation from the Open University validation service, and Mr Syme said there is a "Chinese wall" that frees the OU in Scotland to explore mutual areas of interest with UHI without the burden of being the validator.

"Technically and in curriculum terms, they are doing a different thing. Largely, what they do is synchronous, and what we do is asynchronous. The whole premise of the OU will remain home-based learning, not people gathering in one place," he said. "Any new provider is competition in a sense, but UHI is no more in competition with us than Paisley University is in competition with us in Paisley. It's another widening of choice for students." But there is more scope for credit accumulation and transfer, and impartial advice and information for students across Scotland, he believes. "People don't always make choices the way institutions want them to. They may not actually choose an institution but say, 'I want to study X', and may not recognise a distinction between further and higher education."

The OU is working with Borders College and Aberdeen College to enable students who have completed Higher National certificates or diplomas to go on to degrees. The OU is likely to be particularly attractive in the rural Borders.

Mr Syme does not expect the changeover to include massively increased resources. "The Hefce funds simply transfer to Shefc. We're not essentially doing it for the money.

The new devolved system was strongly advocated by OU vice-chancellor Sir John Daniel, who has held senior university positions in three Canadian provinces.

"That gave me a very clear belief that it doesn't make any sense to have money coming from sources that don't have jurisdiction and are not making policy," Sir John said. He sees the OU moving towards a confederation of partnerships, including the new United States OU and accredited Eastern European partners. "My vision is of a worldwide network of partners with similar values and a common interest in distance learning."

And he was not alarmed by the prospect of Scottish higher education policy diverging from other parts of the UK. "The whole point of devolved power is for people to use it."

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