The Briefing Column: The Open University
The Open University offers home-based higher education for adults. It demands no entry qualifications and offers places on a first come-first served principle. Since 1971 it has admitted roughly 20,000 undergraduate students each January, and a growing number of associate and short course students. It has a total student body of over 70,000; and over 40,000 still apply each year for places.
Undergraduate students build their degrees on the ‘credit’ system, choosing almost any combination from over a hundred courses to gain six credits for an ordinary BA and eight for honours. Courses are offered in the Arts, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Science, Technology and Education. The average student can manage the work of about one credit a year by doing about fifteen hours study a week. The bulk of the reading is from well prepared correspondence texts which are also on sale in bookshops. This is supplemented on most courses by radio and television broadcasts or tapes, tutorials at a local study centre, and a week’s summer school held at one of the campus universities in the long vacation. Examination is by a combination of continuous assessment and a final three-hour paper for each course.
Undergraduate fees are government subsidised but still cost the student £67 for a full credit course. The cost of set books varies, but is additional, as is postage, travel, and some items of equipment such as calculators. The expensive home experiment kits used in some courses are loaned to students. Summer school costs £62 this year but many local education authorities and some employers pay this plus travelling expenses. The University itself has a financial assistance fund for students who cannot afford the fees.
The headquarters of the Open University is in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. This is largely a course production and administrative centre, despatching about 62,500 packages a week to students. There are thirteen regional offices in the country providing local services and personal contact. Tutorial and counselling support in the regions is provided by more than 5,000 teachers employed part-time.
Of the students who sit the end-of-year examinations, around 90 per cent pass; but a gradually increasing percentage are failing to get as far as the examination on post foundation level courses. In 1979 only about 60 per cent of those who paid their fees for these courses gained credits. There may be a number of reasons for this: decreasing educational preparedness in the people now applying to the OU; increasing economic pressures affecting workers’ jobs and family life; or the decreasing level of personal support provided by the University as government economies bite deeper.
The Open University is not expected to show a profit, but it is expected to be ‘cost effective’—cheap to run. Those workers who had an inadequate school education; who have great difficulty in sparing the time and the money for courses; whose family problems, shift work and short holidays make them too tired and harrassed to devote their minds to study, and who lack the nerve and the know-how to demand their money’s worth when they do—these are the ones who ‘drop out’.
About 40,000 students have now obtained degrees through OU part-time study, in spite of the difficulties. This is an indication, not only of the amount of enthusiasm that exists among workers for rigorous intellectual effort, but also of the amount of unrecognised brain power that still lies dormant in a class which seems to think that it does not have the intelligence to set up and run a social system in its own interests.