Every university likes to think it is unique, but within the UK system, perhaps only one really is.
That institution, the Open University, finds itself at a defining moment in its 49-year history, a reckoning set in motion back in 2012 when the government unintentionally wrecked the funding model for part-time higher education in England.
It has become one of David Willetts’ party pieces since stepping down as universities minister to admit that the increase in fees delivered a near-fatal blow to part-time participation, even as growth in full-time undergraduate education sailed serenely on.
The fact that part-timers – often at a different stage of their lives and with different financial responsibilities – were less willing to take out loans apparently took him by surprise. “On part-time students I plead guilty,” Willetts said last year. “I remain shocked by what happened.”
Lord Browne – whose review ushered in the higher-fee regime – has also expressed regret, pointing out that part-timers are often retraining, and as such were deserving of special support – not obliteration.
This is the backdrop to the current crisis, which in the last couple of weeks has catapulted the doyenne of distance learning into another unique position, as the beneficiary of full-throated support from both the Daily Mail and The Sun, which are campaigning to “Save the OU”.
As has been pointed out, there is irony in Conservative MPs wringing hands over a crisis precipitated by their party’s higher education policy – and after supporting a Higher Education and Research Act, which was clear that universities should be allowed to fail.
Writing in a blog for THE, Pam Tatlow, former head of the MillionPlus mission group, said: “One can only assume that in the new world of HERA and the market as king, ministers did not anticipate that the OU would be the first institution to be the subject of a lobby from their own backbench MPs.”
Despite the OU’s predicament, it is not in immediate danger of going to the wall.
The internal machinations under way, which last week saw vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks quit after commenting that more staff “should be bloody well teaching”, relate to plans for restructuring that reflect a changed operating environment – not yet an institution in its death throes.
In our news pages, we look at what has changed, beyond the funding scenario itself, analysing student data to identify some fundamental shifts in the way that the OU is used.
There will be those who argue that, as the OU approaches its half century, it is no longer as unique as it was – that it was ahead of its time in developing a distance learning model and using media to reach students, but that this is now something that all institutions do to a greater or lesser extent.
A counter-argument is that the OU’s time has come, when we are all told that lifelong learning must become the new normal and there is no such thing as a skill set or a job for life.
The problems bedevilling part-time study have been acknowledged within government for some time now. What was telling, though, was that when the prime minister ordered the root and branch review of the funding system, all the talk reverted to the 18-year-old, full-time undergraduate – the bit that does not need fixing.
That probably reflects the cold reality of where media interest lies – and where politicians think the votes lie. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that it has taken the sudden interest of a right-wing tabloid or two to prompt ministers to suggest that part-time study will be addressed in the review.
If the Mail forces the government to take the predicament of part-time study seriously and do something about the broken structures that are crippling not just the OU but lifelong learning in all of England’s universities, it will have done higher education a rare favour.