David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science today presented a White Paper ’Higher Education: students at the heart of the system’. The BBC reports that the Open University will offer courses through local further education colleges.
In his reading of the White Paper the OU’s Vice Chancellor Martion Bean noted the ‘numerous positive references’ to part-time study, distance learning and to The OU. He was also encouraged by the material on widening participation and noted that David Willetts said in the Commons that ‘we think that The Open University can be one of the main beneficiaries of the new flexibility with the 20,000 extra places.’
This idea of a network was mooted in the early 1960s when the OU was being planned. Jennie Lee, however, took the view that the OU should take the form that it did. She felt that it was only by being independent that it could hope to operate to the highest academic standards. Soon after it was opened the OU allowed modules to be presented at colleges in the USA. The 2011 White Paper seems to suggest that institutions, (possibly including further education colleges & private providers) which charge tuition fees of less than £7,500 can bid for 20,000 student places. Perhaps OU modules are to be sold to colleges? Who would validate the modules, be responsible for assessment and quality is not clear and the implications of a shift towards providing teaching materials for full-time and quite possibly face-to-face and young students have yet to be announced. The White Paper mentions the OU twice, once pointing out that it does ‘consistently well’ in thesurveyof student satisfaction (p37) the other time to suggest that there could be more bodies with a structuere such as that of the OU (p52). Willett’s paper also promises new price comparison-style websites to enable prospective consumers, be they graduate employers, potential students or the government to assess the benefits and disbenefits of different universities. The government wishes to pay less for higher education out of the public purse and to get graduates to pay directly instead. The universities must demonstrate a financial benefit to those studying through them as, in most cases, this payment will need to come out of their salaries as graduates. Such would not be the case for people as wealthy the Minister who is reckoned to have wealth totalling about £1.9 million.
The balance between the different roles which universities play within society is being shifted. Greater weight is being given to the view that universities exist to enable their graduates to attain higher-paid jobs. If we are to understand the changes we need to see where we’ve come from and what we are in danger of losing and gaining.
In addition, institutions designed to make profits will be able to accept students who have loans from the government and one-in-10 undergraduate places will be placed into an ‘auction’, allowing universities to bid for extra students. The press quoted a Whitehall source:
The reforms are all about ensuring that students get their money’s worth. We’re asking graduates to contribute more once they are earning so it is only right that universities deliver for students
To frame higher education in terms of the money cuts across the values espoused by those responsible for the creation of the OU. Harold Wilson’s response when asked about housewife students reading for degrees at the OU was to say:
I’m not at all appalled at this. They are having a chance they have never had before. I’ve never thought of the Open University as a technical college for vocational education. It doesn’t matter if their degrees never earn them a penny piece (Education & Training, December 1972)
In order for the OU to adapt to the shift in values represented by this attempt to create a regulated market-based system in higher education, it will be useful to have recourse to a longer-term historical perspective.