The OU: collective creation or top-down imposition?

Much of the reporting of the recent development of universities laments the passing of a golden age. Sometimes these accounts are a burnished and reconstructed version of the past which portray universities as victims. However, the OU has played a more active role.

It is the case that during the two decades following the late 1980s the OU’s cultural and organisation structures developed along similar lines to those of other UK universities. The British state continued to be the principal funder but there was a shift towards greater recourse to private resources and greater influence from post-Cold War United States economic neo-liberalism. This resulted in the spread of ‘the industrial model of higher education’ which began ‘functioning increasingly as an industry’.A ‘quasi-market’ developed within an increasingly ‘hollowed out’ state sector. Knowledge transfer, continuing education and catering were among the elements placed on a commercial, cost recovery, basis and the focus of funding shifted towards individual learners and external partners. This trend was exacerbated when in 2010 university teaching budget was cut by 80% and the UK government formally withdrew all funding for the teaching of arts, humanities and social sciences. Funding body grants represented 52% of all OU income, tuition fees and educational contracts represented 34%, research grants and contracts only 4%, endowment and investment income was 4% and there was 6% from other sources (including sales of materials). Governments sought to deploy and encourage the market. There was a sustained interest in corporate management structures, in encouraging competition between universities for finite resources and in promoting a market orientation.

The development of the OU was also framed by the spread of international links, of measurements between universities and by the growth of online learning. There was also greater alignment as curricula, funding and qualifications converged. The binary divide between universities and polytechnics was abolished, the harmonisation of curricula and qualifications across Europe was promoted, new standards for the quality of the learners’ experiences were set and universities’ performances were audited. As universities took on similar roles as one another, some began to formally stratify themselves and to compete for the students. The OU’s support for learning among older people, those without prior qualifications and those who lived overseas was echoed elsewhere. Those who studied with the OU began to have more in common with those attending other universities as more mature, part-time students attended a variety of universities. Although the OU dominated the market for part-time and access students it faced greater competition. More universities offered the possibility of part-time study and developed strategies to support widening participation. An OU study concluded that it wanted to focus on attracting younger students in direct competition with other universities as it ‘did not see mature leisure learners as a high priority segment’. As distance education moved from the margins of policy and practice, the ‘distance education tradition’ became less distinctive. Other UK-based universities also followed the OU in venturing overseas.

Although regulation and commodification increased, these new cultural formations were not simply impositions, evidence of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and increased control from above. There were also dynamic, sustaining, processes developed within the OU. It was a pedagogic innovator and active instigator of change. A new world for higher education was being developed and within it, the OU conformed, was copied and also retained some of its distinctiveness.

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