Flexible at forty

The history of the OU was an important element  of a discussion on Monday, 13 June 2011 at the British Academy, London.

After a welcome from Robin Jackson, Chief Executive and Secretary of the British Academy there was an introduction from the chair of the panel, Sir Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education University of London (Vice-Chancellor Kingston University till December 2010, earlier Editor Times Higher Education Supplement introduced. He spoke warmly of the innovative social democratic ethos of the OU and invited Professor Alan Tait, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Curriculum and Awards, Open University to address the question, ‘Flexible learning: the future higher education landscape?’ The PVC told his audience of approximately 70 people about the initial development of the OU in the face of criticism from civil servants, politicians of left and right and the BBC. He explained the ways in which it might be seen as flexible and some of its strategies for coping with the uncertainties which face the HE sector. Taking up the theme of the innovative nature of the OU a Fellow of the Society for Research into Higher Education, Lewis Elton asked how it was that OU had been pioneered in the often conservative UK and not adopted or adapted for use elsewhere. Alan Tait explained that there were many universities which had adapted the blend of teaching communication through broadcasting and correspondence with some contact with personal tutors.

The next speaker was Carl Lygo, pictured, Chief Executive Officer, BPP Holdings, and Principal BPP University College of Professional Studies.He considered the landscape facing those in the HE sector in terms of government policies, particularly the plan to reduce the number of overseas students, shifts in employment patterns and the perceived need for lifelong learning and flexibility in the labour market and the impact of that which he termed ‘the digital revolution’. He suggested that BPP was flexible because it was able to offer students the opportunity to meet their tutors either online or face-to-face. Although Carl said that he was first an educationalist and only second a businessman he had little to say about the pedagogic implications of that which he termed ‘the digital revolution’ or about the ways in which pioneering the use technology to support learning has been central to the OU since its inception.

Vernon Bogdanor CBE, FBA is Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary History and formerly Professor of Government at Oxford University, and Senior Tutor and Vice-Principal at Brasenose College. He was the final speaker and he presented the OU as a great innovation arguing that it had helped to set us on the road to a civilised society. A couple of years ago Vernon Bogdanor argued that ‘in times of economic difficulty, social democracy becomes more relevant, not less’ and on Monday he noting the liberal tendencies of the OU and suggested that it helped to set us on the path to a civilised society. However, having taught the current PM at Oxford, (and this might be evidence of how learners can construct knowledge together) he appears to have accepted some of his former student’s views in regard to the state because he then presented a dichotomy which stressed how far the state has crowded out society. He also saw some possible benefits to greater marketisation and indeed in the plans for a new college in London, arguing that flexibility might include some universities being permitted to fail economically.

A wide-ranging debate followed. Thanks to the British Academy for arranging this event.

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