Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Praise for OU in MK Tory MP’s maiden speech

Monday, June 21st, 2010
Iain Stewart MP

Iain Stewart MP for Milton Keynes South since May 6th 2010 gave his first speech in the Commons on 17th June. (more…)

Life within the audit culture

Monday, June 7th, 2010


Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) proposed that

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

The OU: a single inflexible menhir?

Can that dichotomy help us understand developments within the OU in the 1980s and 1990s?

In the 1980s the shift away from the idea that academics could describe their own order of existence was noted by OU sociologist Professor Stuart Hall. Writing about the OU in the ‘New Statesman and Society’, 26 November 1993, Hall noted how people describe themselves and their work has been influenced by the audit culture.

The Open University … is filled with good social democrats. Everybody there believes in the redistribution of educational opportunities and seeks to remedy the exclusiveness of British education. And yet, in these last ten years, these good social-democratic souls… have learned to speak a brand of metallic new entrepreneurism, a new managerialism of a horrendously closed nature. They believe what they have always believed, but what they do, how they write their mission statements, how they do appraisal forms… that’s what they are interested in now. The result is that the institution has become transformed.

Writing on 20th December 1993 in the same magazine he proposed a different view when he suggested that the use of discourse was not hegemonic, that it did not change ‘for a minute what is in academics’ hearts and minds’. However, others suggested that the new market discourse could become part of a person’s professional identity. Similar concerns and debates pervaded the development of educational management according to his colleague Paul du Gay and others at the OU (see P du Gay, G Salaman and B Rees, ‘The conduct of management and the management of conduct: contemporary managerial discourse and the constitution of the ‘competent’ manager’, Journal of Management Studies, 33, 3, 263-282.)

The debate about the impact of managerialist ideas was echoed in discussions about the idea of students as active participants in their own learning. This had been promoted by many within IET but  was countered by an emphasis on the individual and on knowledge and learning being presented as atomistic, mechanistic and explicit in character. Knowledge was characterised as a resource, like money, which, although it could not be spent, could be possessed and stored, and was sometimes in need of renewal. The language of credit accumulation and a ‘skills audit’ reflected this fiscal framework. Courses (the equivalent of modules at other universities) were the mechanism whereby skills and knowledge were delivered and learning outcomes, the product, assessed. Successful delivery of the product could be quantified in terms of an increase in the knowledge and skills capital belonging to the student who was a container for these skills. The learner was conceptualised as a configuration of needs, wants and accumulated learning which had gaps. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire noted that ‘education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction [between teacher and student] through … attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole’. One of the characteristics was that ‘the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing’. Many at the OU rejected the notion of a person having a space into which leaning outcomes can be placed and sought to empower students, not dominate them. They argued that the conceptualisation of knowledge as packaged sets of pre-prepared sets of materials, marketed as desirable learning outcomes and delivered by part-time academic labour was not a useful one. Rather, knowledge acquisition was socially situated and knowledge was constructed by individuals rather than a possession. Concepts such as ‘key skills’, or ‘records of achievement’ were redolent with locally created meanings and could be negotiated, contested, and reconstructed.

Noble (1997)  took up the theme arguing that although technology, radio, television and later the internet, have been seen as the solution to many different problems of higher education such as high costs and the inefficiency of some teaching, virtual education supports the transformation of a public good into a commodity; the development of workers and consumers instead of critical citizens; the homogenization and standardization of educational contents, values and languages and, of course, the digital divide. He concluded that the high-tech transformation of higher education was being initiated and implemented from the top down and that alienation and the reduction of the autonomy and independence of faculties arose from the commercialization of higher education and the commoditization of the research and educational functions of universities.

There were, within the OU’s original model and its subsequent development, practices, metaphors and models which reflected the managerialist and marketized society in which the OU was located. The model of learning as rational-cognitive, conceptualised as the serial acquisition of knowledge through rational, mechanistic private engagement fitted with some notions of programmed learning which conceptualised knowledge as permanent, cumulative and commodified. As a Professor nearing retirement Hall had greater independence than others and may have marginalised the positions of those required to demonstrate appropriate discursive fluency (for the RAE for example) or those who adopted a form of bilingualism in relation to managerialist and other discourses such that their oppositional positions became transitory and marginal. Nevertheless, the OU was a dialogical entity, was composed of many discourses and meanings and while the processes associated with structure and agency of communities of practice were employed to facilitate accommodation there was also reconstruction and some resistance. Freire’s notion of nutually exclusive positions is a useful idea, but not the most satisfactory way of conceptualising discursive contestation  at the OU.

Thatcher and the OU

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

In October 1970 Ted Short (a former Labour Minister) argued in Education & Training (12, 10, October 1970) that the new Tory government had changed the OU because Thatcher ‘succumbed to Treasury pressure’ and that as a result ‘We now have the Not-Quite-So-Open University.’ While the government had not changed the total number of places at the OU it had sought to allow 18 year olds to study there, (it had previously been open only to those aged at least 21) and it had sought to increase ‘the contribution it can make to the general provision’. He concluded:

one of the most imaginative concepts of the Labour government will be used for a purpose for which it was never intended. Goodbye second chance for thousands who missed out early in life.

In December (Education & Training 12, 12) Short noted that while 25,000 students were to be admitted in 1971, as Labour had planned, a cap of 40,00 was placed on the numbers of 1973 and also the grant was fixed in order to encourage the OU to reduce its unit costs ‘which can only be done by lowering the quality of its service’. The journal in which he wrote also commented on the attitude of the new government. In December 1970 Education & Training (12, 12) editorialised about the OU:

This paper has been more critical than most of the way the original concept has been narrowed down. For some time at least it will educate the already educated, rather than the deprived for whom it was intended. That Mrs Thatcher [Conservative Education Minister] accedes to this dilution is regrettable but surprising… The Minister’s thinking on the Open University is akin to her thinking on school meals – to him that hath it shall be given… The tragedy is that there is a need for a Ministerial initiative, opposite to the one the Secretary of State has chosen to take. With its present biased intake of teachers and housewives, there is a need to correct some of its pretensions. A need to put the idea over to working people that at last there is an educational opportunity for them, that they may take as far as they like. Otherwise Jenny Lee’s Grand Design will fail and the Open University sink to becoming the ACE [Advisory Centre for Education, a charity] of the goggle box.

Maggie & the OU

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

I was at an OU Graduation Ceremony at the Barbican a couple of weeks ago. In his address the Chancellor, Lord Puttnam, spoke briefly about the origins of the University, and in addition to the usual mention of Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee, paid tribute to Margaret Thatcher, who turned out to be a powerful supporter. Walter Perry, in his book “The Open University” recalls a meal with her: She suggested first that our main activity would be to offer courses on ‘hobbies’. I fear that I needle very easily […] The exchanges were sharp, short and furious. I am happy to say that , in spite of it all, we ended on a friendly note. […] When she became Minister of Education after the Tory victory in 1970 we had reason to be glad of that dinner.

Dealing with a new government

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Was former OU Tutor, and former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown more sympathetic to the OU?

With a new government in place, promising cuts in public spending, there may be some sense of deja vu at the OU.

Forty years ago, with the University created by a Labour government but no students yet studying, the election of Ted Heath’s Tory government posed a real threat to the newly formed institution. William van Straubenzee, appointed as junior minister for higher education, reported ‘I would have slit its throat if I could.’ He blamed the outgoing Labour education minister Ted Short for some ‘nifty, last-moment work with the charter that made the OU unkillable’. Student numbers were cut but the University survived.

Nine years later, another Conservative government, this time led by Margaret Thatcher, caused more problems for the OU. In 1980 the University had to cut expenditure by £3.5 million, nine per cent of its 1979 expenditure and the government effectively imposed a 46 per cent increase in the undergraduate tuition fee. Again the University survived, as no doubt it will again, whatever the new government chooses to throw at it.

Allegations of Marxist bias in the 1970s and 1980s

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Disputes about the content of a number of courses raged during the 1970s and 1980s. (more…)

Election fever

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

A 1974 edition of Open House, the Open University’s staff magazine, discussed the prospects of 12 members of OU staff standing for election at the forthcoming general election.

Two were successful. Professor Gerry Fowler became Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills and Geoff Edge became MP for Aldridge-Brownhills.

Of course these were only the first of many OU staff members to seek public office, most famously the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a former tutor.