OU students keep getting younger

In the last week there has been extensive media coverage of the large numbers of potential students who are unable to obtain a university place following the publication of A’ level results. Prominent amongst that coverage has been David Willets statement that school leavers should consider The Open University (alongside FE colleges and apprenticeships) as an alternative. Meanwhile spokespeople for the OU have also been popping up advocating this course of action. This is likely to contribute to the trend towards younger people signing up for the OU.

It has been reported that overall there has been a 20% increase in the number of under 25s reserving course places for 2010/11. The OU in Scotland has seen a 34.3% increase in the number of students aged 18-24 (over the last two years); and the OU in Wales has seen a 45% increase in students aged 18-24 (over three years). Further reports suggest that in the weeks leading up to clearing there has been a noticeable increase in the number of younger students reserving places.

This is interesting in comparison to the early days of the University when applications were restricted to those over 21, except in special circumstances. The University was seen as providing ‘a second chance’ for adults; and one of its defining characteristics has been that A’ levels are not required for entry. Walter Perry commented in his book:

The choice of 21 as the youngest age for students to begin…was not a decision that was lightly taken. We were well aware that the country faced an increase in demand from school leavers for university education and it was in some ways tempting to offer to meet some of that demand…we could offer substantial savings to whatever government was in power. On the other hand, most of us felt that to follow a course of study in isolation demanded qualities of maturity that would usually be lacking in people as young as 18. I also believed…that a young person of 18 would be missing a great deal if he were denied the opportunity of studying in a regular residential university.

I have never regretted this [decision]. As a result we were able to definitely set our sights on adults living at home, in full employment, studying part-time in isolation, and we could write the courses with them particularly in mind.

Furthermore this had been the view of the Planning Committee:

Indeed, we believe it is always preferable for those aged 16-21 years in employment to attend sandwich courses, block release courses, or part-time day release courses at technical colleges, and at degree level, sandwich courses at technological universities and polytechnics designate.

Another consideration at the time, no longer relevant, was the need not to alienate other universities by competing for ‘their’ students.

The University was established by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. Shortly afterwards a Conservative government was elected under Edward Heath. Under pressure from the government the University launched a pilot admissions scheme for school leavers (18-20 year olds) in 1974 which was not an unqualified success*. It was not until 1986 that, with places at other universities less plentiful, the University decided to lower the minimum age of entry to the undergraduate programme to 18 as a general rule.

This raises certain questions. For example, how has the pool of people that The Open University can most usefully provide for has changed over the last 40 years? How are 18-21 year olds different? How has the experience and options provided by other higher education institutions affected what the OU offers? And overall how have the OU and its priorities changed?

 *The door stood open by Naomi McIntosh and Alan Woodley

Leave a Reply