An Open Question

In February, 21.000 new adult undergraduates began their studies with The Open University. This is the eighth year of its teaching operation, and there are still twice as many applicants as places very year. It uses over a thousand hours of broadcasting each year and despatches more than 30,000 packages of correspondence teaching material every week. Whether people like it or not—and there are some who do not — the OU has radically altered the pattern of adult education in this country.

There are some who see it as a powerful agent for more fundamental social change, and so, ever since it was granted its charter in 1969, it has had its critics. Those on the ‘left’ have hammered it for not catering for ‘the working class’. Those on the ‘right’ have spread alarms about ‘marxist bias’ in its courses. Those who went to ‘real’ universities have asserted that, whatever else it might be, it could never be a university. And those whose experience at school taught them to be suspicious of ail education have ignored it. Harold Wilson, who claims the idea for its establishment as his own, has stated that the formation of The Open University is the achievement for which he would most like to be remembered.

So how should socialists evaluate it? Like every other capitalist institution, the OU embodies a number of contradictions and tensions, and it is worth looking into some of these.

Unlike other universities in Britain, the OU is financed directly by the Treasury on the decisions of the Department of Education and Science, and this puts it into a direct relationship with the government of the day. All its printed courses are available for sale to the public, and all its broadcasts are on open channels so that, quite unlike other universities, anyone can know what is being taught at any time. These are two strong influences towards conservatism. The third main conservative force is exerted by its students who, in the large majority, are looking not for social change at all but social mobility. They want a ‘respectable’ degree which will be accepted by employers, professional institutes and other educational institutions.

Pioneering Venture
In spite of these quite powerful forces, there is, in fact, a tendency for OU courses to be socially critical. The teachers who were attracted to the University when it seemed to be a pioneering venture tended to be those with a desire to change education. There were those who called themselves marxists, some who called themselves christians, and a much larger body who felt only that education should be much more relevant to daily life. What has happened it that the peculiar Open University process has taken them over and produced an amalgam of all their efforts that has been described as ‘pale pink’. It is this “pale pink’’ course material that has been supplied, not only to OU undergraduates and associate students, but also through Open University Educational Enterprises Ltd. to bookshops all over this country and is being marketed in many other countries in the world, especially the USA.

In this and a number of other ways, the OU is a blend of the commercial and the educational — very different from either the commercial correspondence college on the one hand or, say, a polytechnic on the other. In the matter of fees, for example, the OU student is much worse off than the person who can secure a full-time place at an ordinary university. He cannot get the same sort of grant. He pays his own course fees. This year these are £52 for a full credit course. On top of this he may need set books worth about £20, and if there is a summer school in the course this will cost £50 plus travelling expenses. Most Local Education Authorities have been awarding grants for all or part of the summer school fee and expenses, but OU students have been among the first to suffer in the last two years as local council spending has been cut.

Commercial Approach
Although the OU began by setting up as full a programme as it could afford of undergraduate studies, an important part of the original idea was the provision of post experience courses for people who simply wished to up-date their knowledge in a particular field. The number of people taking single courses in this way as associate students has been steadily growing over the last two or three years in spite of the fact that they pay considerably more, often for the same course, than they would if they were undergraduates. There is no government subsidy of associate students, and there has in the past been considerable acrimony within the University about the rather ruthless commercial approach that was adopted towards these students. This argument was typical of hundreds that have gone on in countless committee meetings throughout the last eight years. The same academics who were pledged to delivering “meaningful” higher education to everyone who wanted it, and to using all the aids of modern technology to this end, also found themselves committed, by the structure and financing of the University, to the minimisation of the cost of higher education to the state. Every innovation therefore, like the marking of assignments by computer, teaching by telephone, or the provision of home experiment kits, has to be justified on economic as well as educational grounds.

Failure Rate
One of the confident predictions of the early critics was that the failure rate among students would be enormous, and that this would offset any apparent financial saving. When one looks at the educational background of OU students and the circumstances under which they study, the prediction seems realistic. Anyone over 21 resident in the UK can apply for a place, regardless of previous education, and places are offered on a first-come-first-served basis. For undergraduates there is even a limited amount of financial assistance for those unable to pay the fees. They study at home from correspondence material which arrives by post. They listen to radio and watch TV broadcasts associated with their course, and they can attend a local study centre for help and advice from their tutors and counsellors. If they study at the rate of one full credit a year, which is normal, they will need to spend about fifteen hours a week aside from their job and their home and family for about forty weeks in the year. During this time they will submit about ten written assignments by post to their tutor and about the same number of pencil-marked forms to be assessed by the computer at Milton Keynes. In early November they will sit a three-hour examination, and the marks from this and their assignments are put together to produce a grade for the course. They need six of these credits for an ordinary degree and eight for an honours degree.

It is a hard way to get a degree, and some students are still working their way slowly through the system. Nevertheless, by 1977, 27,102 had graduated, and it is becoming evident that the rate of failure is not nearly as high as was expected. To begin with, there was a very high percentage of teachers taking degrees, and these might be expected to succeed. As the educational preparedness of applicants falls we can expect to see a fall in the success rate. But it is still astonishing to teachers brought up on a selective system of education to see how well ordinary people manage to cope with quite rigorous degree studies.

One of the recurrent criticisms from the ‘left’ is that OU learning, because of the mass production methods, is rigid and prevents questioning. The people who make this sort of criticism have usually got research degrees themselves. They forget how little opportunity there is for undergraduates at any university to question what they are taught. In the OU it is, if anything, the students themselves who avoid questioning. For too many of them the degree is simply a means to an end, and they simply want to know which are the ‘right’ answers so that they can get the degree as quickly as possible. It is the writers of the courses and the tutors in the study centres who try to persuade them to look all round a question. Over a period of six years or more, this is bound to have some effect, but it is a bit like working against the pull of gravity.

When they apply to the OU many people have the illusion that a degree is a passport to higher pay, a better job, and increased social prestige, and the University spends a considerable amount of time and money in trying to convince them that this is not necessarily so, especially if, like the majority, they are already over thirty.

The fact is that having a degree of any kind, is no guarantee of a better job—or even of any job at all. It does not change the graduate’s status as one compelled to sell his labour power to earn a living.

The Open University has the following aim written into its charter “. . . to advance the educational well-being of the community generally”. Education — the spread of knowledge and understanding — can only be beneficial to the spread of socialist ideas.


Leave a Reply