Archive for February, 2011

Thinking outside the box

Monday, February 28th, 2011


Although before it was opened it was known as the University of the Air and although it has been responsible for thousands of television programmes, in its support for learning the OU has always thought well outside ‘the box’. This is not to associate it with Britain’s most despised business term in 2008 (see the report of a YouGov poll Daily Telegraph 28 November 2008) but to recognise that the OU has been facilitating networks of learners far beyond the campus  and indeed beyond the airwaves for decades. (more…)

“The Coalition believes in a big, strong and effective higher education sector”

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Speaking to the Universities UK Spring Conference David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, quoted above, made a few general points regarding his vision. He wants to give students ‘better value and greater choice’.

 He noted that ‘the growth of higher education in England between 1850 and 1950’ was based on local colleges which taught students for existing degrees at the University of London and elsewhere. This system meant that ‘students at new institutions could obtain degrees or other qualifications from prestigious and well understood institutions’. He went on

The external degrees of the University of London are now largely for foreign students. They should, once again, be widely available across Britain.

This was the model rejected by Jennie Lee when the design for the OU was being discussed.  While the current Minister may have considered Jennie Lee’s rationale and rejected it he does not refer to this route to his conclusions.

He argued that ‘We are committed to improving social mobility and we recognise that better access to higher education is one of the most effective ways to do that.’ However, his method was not to focus on learning. Instead he talks of putting ‘the quality of teaching where it should be – at the heart of the system’.

The government has distinctive ideas regarding the development of the HE sector. But will it draw on the most useful historical analogies and models and the best research? For a different view of this speech see Doug’s blog.

Sky’s the limit for flat earthers?

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Founded in 2004 the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education offers support and advice on leadership, governance and management to the UK higher education sector. In a keynote speech to its 2011 conference, Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University since 1 October 2009, stressed the importance of internationalisation for UK and US universities. We face, as Martin Bean, put it, a ‘flat world with no boundaries’ but making successful links requires that ‘senior people in your governance body’ support expansion and that the choice of areas of activity and partners is determined by the university’s values and culture.

Martin Bean’s advice may well be derived his own experience of international educational ventures. He was President of AIESEC International, (Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales) in 1986-7. This international, not-for-profit organisation run by students and recent graduates was described by Kofi Anan as

an agent of positive change through education and cultural exchange to develop a broader understanding of cultural, socio-economic and business management issues.

In addition, Martin Bean may have built on an understanding of the history of the OU. (more…)

The economics of The Open University

Monday, February 21st, 2011

21 February is the birthday of Leslie Wagner (here in black and yellow gown) formerly of the OU. When it first opened the economic efficiency of the OU was assessed. The OU produced data on a variety of aspects of the OU’s activities including how much it cost to produce a graduate, the cost to individuals and to the public sector. A study made in 1971 by an economist at the OU, Leslie Wagner, indicated that the OU was cheaper than other universities. The identification of fixed and variable costs, and deciding which costs ought to be allocated to teaching, which to research and which to ensuring that the university was also for the ‘storage of knowledge and maintenance of cultural standards’, was open to discussion. Wagner concluded:

It would be imprudent to draw any very definite conclusions from these figures. There are too many conceptual and statistical problems for that sort of exercise. Nevertheless, the gap between the Open University and the conventional universities’ figures is too large to be ignored

There were further studies, most of which largely agreed with Wagner’s assessment but in 1978 John Mace attacked the case that the OU was cheaper. He concluded that the idea that the OU ‘outperforms conventional universities in terms of openness and costs per graduate… is a dangerous myth. The studies suffer from serious methodological shortcomings’. The debate then took a turn towards another aspect of economics: output. To make a comparison in regard to attainment the same questions were set for students at the OU and for students at a conventional university. Overall, Lumsden and Alex Scott concluded, ‘the academic standards of the OU compare well with conventional universities’.


Leslie Wagner, ‘The economics of the Open University’, Higher Education, 1, 2, May 1972, pp. 159-183;

Charles F Carter, ‘The economics of the Open University: a comment’, Higher Education, 2, !, February 1973, pp. 69-70

Bruce Laidlaw and Richard Layard, ‘Traditional versus Open University teaching methods: a cost comparison’, Higher education, 3, 4, 1974, pp. 439-467;

K. G. Lumsden and C. Ritchie, ‘The Open University: a survey and economic analysis’, Instructional Science 4, 1975, pp. 237-291;

Greville Rumble, ‘The economics of the Open University of the United Kingdom’, Open University mimeo, 1976

Leslie Wagner, ‘The economics of the Open University revisited’, Higher Education, 6 1977, pp. 359-381.

John Mace, ‘Mythology in the making: is the Open University really cost effective?’, Higher education, 7, 3, August 1978, pp. 295-309

Keith Lumsden and Alex Scott, ‘An output comparison of Open University and conventional students’, Higher Education, 11, 5, September 1982, pp. 573-591.

Has OU study changed offenders?

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

What impact does studying with the OU have on learners? Sometimes the results appear dramatic because of the change in the fortunes of the offenders. In January 1971 among the first students to start studying at the OU were 22 prisoners, the first of many to study at the OU. Many had difficulties that other students did not face. As one Tutor pointed out some years later, it is difficult for a Category A prisoner to set up a rain gauge outside when he has to be handcuffed to a prison officer every day to check the water level. (more…)

An Open and Shut Case

Friday, February 11th, 2011

The UCU (University and College Union) recently commissioned a report, Universities at risk. The impact of cuts in higher education spending on local economies, which concluded that across England, 49 universities were at risk of closure and that, of all the pre-92 universities, the OU is most at risk. It features in the list of 22 HEIs at ‘high medium’ level of potential impact from the proposals made in the Browne Review (2010), Securing a sustainable future for higher education. This means that the OU has at least eight of the maximum of 12 ‘risk’ points. A recent survey of university leaders revealed that nine out of ten expect an institution to close due to financial pressures. The OU has faced the possibility of closure before. In the past it rallied students and staff to defend it. (more…)

Economic cuts of the past

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Access to the online back issues of The Economist has been secured for OU staff. A glance through the archives indicates that in 1963 The Economist ‘warmly welcomed’ the OU and called it ‘one of the best things that he [Harold Wilson] has done’. In 1965 it said that the idea of a University of the Air had been ‘long supported by this journal’. In 1979 it reported that the OU had ‘moved away from the over-the-air teaching’ and noted the importance of regional centres and correspondence. To mark forty years of broadcasts it lapsed into ahistoric clichés. Although most of the course materials were printed and late-night television only started after a couple of years, here we are told that

OU lectures delivered remotely by hirsute professors, who dryly enumerated the laws of thermodynamics on late-night television, appealed only to the most dedicated of older people, determined to better themselves in their spare time

The median age of applicants in 1971 was 26-27 and if there were ‘bespectacled dons sporting dodgy double-knit jumpers’ then there was also some very well-presented teaching materials. Indeed an early criticism of the OU programmes was that they were ‘slickly professional’ (Conrad Russell, TES 1971).

While The Economist concludes that ‘the OU might turn out to offer a vision of the future’, an understanding of how that vision could be realised would be strengthened by a more sophisticated view of the development of the OU.

Has a module changed your life? Tell us about it

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

In 1976 TAD292 ,Art and environment, was first presented at the OU. It dealt with

the processes and attitudes of art not so much as these were evidenced in products of art but as they underlie the very act of doing art. This can be seen already from the titles which were given to some of the units in the course: ‘Boundary Shifting’, ‘Imagery and Visual Thinking’, ‘Having Ideas by Handling Materials’.

Students were offered a range of projects. These included the suggestion that the student stop activity and engage in listening. Another was to compose a score for sounds made from differently textured papers and a third was to enumerate the household’s activities and categorise these in terms of role and sex stereotyping. The aims of the course were attitudional, sensory and subjective rather than cognitive, relating to feeling rather than knowledge. They were ‘more phenomenological than conceptual in nature’. Assessment involved a student not only submitting the product, such as a self-portrait photograph, but also notes describing the process and rationale. The criteria were not specific but involved formulations including enthusiasm, imagination and authenticity. This course took the OU some way from the image of standardized, central control. (more…)

University of the first chance?

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Teens studying at the OU is being promoted by the OU but it wasn’t always that way. Originally the OU was for over-21s only and there was some concern about allowing younger people to study through the OU. However, after the age of majority was lowered to 18 and when the Minister of Education, Margaret Thatcher, promoted the idea, a pilot group of younger students were permitted to study. They were the subject of close study in order to see if younger people should be encouraged. One of those who worked on the project was Alan Woodley, pictured. Over time attitudes towards younger students have changed and now they are welcomed.

The Liberal Party and the OU

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Following a leader in The Times Higher on 3 December 1971 which attributed the origins of the OU to Harold Wilson’s speech of 1963, a letter from Laurence Edwards was published in the newspaper the following week, 10 December 1971. Edwards claimed that Wilson was not first British politician to enthuse about an open university. Rather, he wrote, ‘the idea owes its inception to a meeting at the Liberal Party Council at least a year earlier as any Liberal pamphlet for the year 1962 can amply demonstrate’. The Liberal Democrat History Group Secretary helpfully investigated this claim and has concluded that the Liberal Party manifestoes for the 1959 or 1964 General Elections did not contain a commitment to set up anything like the OU (although this was also true of the Labour Party manifesto as the idea only appeared there in 1966). Furthermore, Jo Grimond, in The Liberal Future, Faber and Faber, London, 1959, p. 127 (written when he had been Liberal Party leader for three years) argued that  

of adult education I am sceptical. The intense desire for knowledge which existed fifty years ago seems to have evaporated or is now satisfied by TV and the papers. By all means let universities run extra-mural courses but modern adult education of people over twenty-five is largely a matter of providing ‘third programmes’ in various ways outside the educational system itself.

The Liberal Democrat History Group has also checked the list of Liberal Publications Department pamphlets issued between 1956-76, as contained in the catalogue of the  British Library and there is no publication listed which deals with the question of university, adult or further education.

Perhaps Edwards’ was misremembering events. If you know the sources to which he was referring, do let us know.