Cuts in funding meant that faculties were struggling with course production in the early 1980s, with several courses extended to unsatisfactory lengths or withdrawn prior to a replacement being made available. However, the University did decide to produce a modest package of low cost preparatory materials for each foundation course and the decade still saw significant expansion.
The first inter-disciplinary ‘U’ course U201 Risk was produced in 1980. Others in the early 1980s included U202 Inquiry, U203 Popular culture, U204 Third world studies and U221 The changing experience of women, first presented in 1983. This was the first interdisciplinary Women’s Studies course to be taught through distance teaching methods and was very popular.
By 1985 the University presented 87 full credit courses, the highest number ever offered in one year, meeting its original target. However in 1986, the three year lag in the effects of funding cuts began to be felt. Resources had been cut by 32 per cent compared to two years previous and less courses could be offered and the total only reached 87 again in 1988. The undergraduate programme had effectively moved from growth to steady state.
In light of University reviews, in 1986 the mechanism for developing courses changed and a devolved course resource planning and management system was developed, to improve efficiency, accountability and flexibility.
The OU’s first taught higher degree was presented in 1981 – a two year BPhil in Advanced Educational and Social Research Methods, DE801, which proved more popular than anticipated. In 1982 this was provisionally approved as an MSc – Senate had agreed that the University should offer taught higher degrees at one level only – Masters. The popularity of this course continued and a new MSc in Mathematics was added in 1983, receiving more than eight applicants per place. Meanwhile other Masters programmes were planned in Literature, Education and – in conjunction with the Science and Engineering Research Council – in industrial applications of computers and manufacturing. When the MA in Education was launched in 1986, 1,000 applications were received for 320 places. The same year a decision was taken and work began to offer a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) for presentation in 1989.
With the pool of teachers needing to top up their teaching qualifications to degrees decreasing, there was a need to shift the balance in education from undergraduate provision to advanced professional development. To this end, the Faculty of Educational Studies and the INSET (In-Service Education and Training) group in Continuing Education were amalgamated in a new School of Education, which was formally established on 1 April 1983. A first professional diploma in Educational Management was introduced from 1985.
Education in mathematics was beginning to be seen as a strength of the OU with the Cockcroft report on teaching maths in schools mentioning the University's contribution. In 1982 it was agreed to establish a Centre for Mathematics Education and in 1983 Norman Gowar became Professor of Mathematics with special reference to mathematics education.
The University was also developing courses to match the technology developments in the outside world. In particular, TM222 The digital computer attracted 1,300 registrations, with more than 2,000 turned away in 1983, and more than 2,500 turned away in 1984. Grants from government departments made it possible to introduce a home computing scheme for over 10,000 students on three courses available in 1988, and the new technology foundation course T102 in 1989. There was much debate about the policy which enabled students to rent or buy a computer at preferential rates but required home-based access to computing facilities. One of the courses DT200 Introduction to information technology used Computer Mediated Communication for the first time.
The 1980s also saw discussions progress about the teaching of modern languages. In 1983, the first Professor of European Humanities Studies was appointed and a working party on new initiatives in modern language teaching was set up including experts from within and outside the University. However, in 1985 the University’s first proposed language course A219 Understanding German was abandoned due to lack of resources and the decade concluded with no language courses offered.