Revisiting the “Kettle Plan”

Professor Peter Taylor is  the current Chair of the Open Board of Studies and Qualification Director for the BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree.

In July 1974, not long after my 21st birthday, the OU Senate agreed the “Kettle Plan” [1]. This was not a proposal to ensure that OU staff were never more than 20 metres from a means of boiling water but the equivalent of the OU’s current Curriculum Plan. Professor Arnold Kettle chaired the working group that put the proposals together and it provides a lens on the vision for the university in those early years.

Effectively, the Kettle Plan said that, based on the future size and resources of the OU, the number of ‘full credit equivalents’ (modules) produced by the university would be 87. However, you have to remember that the units are different here. A ‘full credit equivalent’ then was what we call a 60 credit module now. The fact that in 2017/18 there were 335 undergraduate modules and 119 postgraduate modules (a mix of half and full credit equivalents in old money) suggests we have long ago busted the plan set out in Professor Kettle’s report.

However, the important point is that the Kettle Plan promoted three types of course “that must have equal priority”:

a)  Foundation courses
b)  The more specialist or ‘intrinsic’ courses
c)  The more general, broadly-based course… “that don’t necessarily fit conveniently within any one discipline or even Faculty”, known as ‘U’ courses.

In fact, it was proposed that about 22 full credit equivalents (say 11 60-credit modules and 22 30-credit modules in new money), about 25% of the University’s output, should be produced.

The Kettle Plan goes on to argue that:

“Between the relative educational merits of the latter two types of course there is, as in all universities, a good deal of disagreement within the OU. Some people (students and academics) are suspicious of the broader courses fearing they can turn out to be superficial. Others are equally convinced that most conventional university degree patterns are greatly over specialised and that the OU neither can nor should compete in attempting to provide the more specialist type of degree”.

At the time, some argued that “U courses are bound to lower degree standards” [2] while others argued “the specialised ‘hons’ is a brontosaurus” [3].

Now, nearly 50 years later, there is little hint of broadly-based modules that “don’t necessarily fit conveniently within any one discipline or even Faculty” in the OU’s current curriculum portfolio. Our silo mentality, our inability to work out how to finance such modules and our need to defend and promote our disciplines has practically erased them from the face of the university.

Almost exactly 50 years ago, the Report of the Planning Committee to the Secretary of State for Education and Science stated:

“The degree of the Open University should, we consider, be a “general degree” in the sense that it would embrace studies over a range of subjects rather than be confined to a single narrow speciality.” [4]

Part of the driver for this was employability:

“Furthermore we are aware of the great need and demand in the country….for an extension of facilities for such general degrees… We have become accustomed to the idea that the career of an individual spans only one major technological phase: it is certain in the future that it will span two or even more such phases… The university will have an important role arising from the changes in, and increasing rate of change within modern technological society.” [4]

These employability messages don’t seem to have changed over 50 years and the Institute of Student Employers (2018) suggests that only 26% of employers focus on recruiting students from particular disciplinary backgrounds [5], yet over the years as a university we have still drifted down the path of specialisation.

Maybe we can’t buck market forces and so we have followed the crowd; but in doing so, we have lost a lot of our uniqueness and lost the vision of our Founding Fathers.

1) Undergraduate Course Provision, Council paper, The Open University, July 1974 (C/XLVII/15, see also Senate paper S/37/9)
1) Sesame, August 1974, p5
2) Sesame, December 1974, p5
3) Sesame, January/February 1975,  p13
4) Report of the Planning Committee to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, 1969, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London
5) Institute of Student Employers (2018), ISE Annual Student Recruitment Survey 2018: Trends, benchmarks and insights, ISE, London [Accessed 8 April 2019]

A multidisciplinary adventure to the OU Archive!

Jay Rixon is a Senior Manager in Curriculum Innovation and responsible for the new MA or MSc Open qualification.

On a rather cold and wet day in December last year myself and a few Open Programme colleagues visited The Open University Archive. This was no dusty Library visit, or a trip to the damp basement but a fascinating exploration of books, papers, student magazines, prospectuses and equipment that used to be sent out to students, such as the McArthur microscope.

In the OU’s 50th Anniversary year, it was wonderful to be reminded of the amazing history of the OU, its founders, dedicated staff and amazing students. Not only did I enjoyed pouring over a couple of books and reading about how the University was created, but I was also reminded of the role and mission of the university to be ’Open to all’. I especially valued the words that were in the Inaugural Address by the Chancellor, Lord Crowther (which was delivered on the 23rd July 1969):

‘We are open, first, to people. Not for us the carefully regulated escalation from one educational level to the next by which the traditional universities establish their criteria for admission… ‘The first, and most, urgent task before us is to cater for the many thousands of people, fully capable of a higher education, who for one reason or another, do not get it, or do not get as much of it as they can turn to an advantage.’

I have worked for many years in the education sector, and often in environments that support students who have had to overcome previous poor experiences of education and those who have missed out on chances to pursue education due to personal challenges or unfair situations. So to be a part of an organisation, whose mission to be ‘open to all’ and inclusive is firmly rooted in its DNA, is extremely meaningful to me.
In the course of our visit to the OU Archive, I also learnt a new word – axiomatic – which means ‘self-evident or unquestionable’. The OU Planning Committee (at the same ceremony on the 23rd July 1969 referenced above) stated that:

‘We took it as axiomatic- that no formal academic qualification would be required for registration as a student.’

Again, the OU was unquestionably stating their commitment to provide education that was open to all. And for me, I might say, education that can be made bespoke, and personalised to the student. This is particularly relevant in the case of the BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree, the very first (and only) degree offered by The Open University in 1969.

I work on the newest qualification to be added to the Open Programme’s portfolio, the MA/MSc Open. This is a new masters qualification which allows postgraduate students to create a personalised course of study across a range of academic disciplines. Not only is the qualification unique in the sector, it adopts a innovative approach to teaching and learning which surely reflects the imagination and bold ideas of the founders of the university. This just goes to show that, 50 years later, aspects of that pioneering creativity remain.

Peter Taylor and Jay Rixon delving into the OU Archive…

The Archive team in the OU Library were so welcoming, showing us the original Charter’ Seal, amazing photos of early graduating ceremonies, and even some of the Shakespeare records in their collection that were used in the early days of OU teaching. There was also a very impressive OU mug collection (!) and I was intrigued by footage of TV programs recorded to be broadcast late at night to students studying after work, or to be recorded for playback later.

This visit to the OU Archive reminded me of the history of the OU and the passion, dedication of its founders, staff and students. It also excited me about the future of this institution. We have new educational challenges, an increasing need for learning to be lifelong and for that learning to have both breadth and depth, that can be used to question whether is it only specialist knowledge that needs to be acquired in the fast-paced, changing landscape of modern society. Instead, should we not also embrace study that is both inter- and/or multidisciplinary, enabling us all to develop the skills and knowledge in complementary and contrasting areas that will help propel us forward in our professional roles and in our learning passions and pursuits.

I’m looking forward to celebrating the OU in this 50th anniversary year and will value the ongoing discussions with colleagues and students alike in looking back at all that has been accomplished and, most important of all, looking forward to exploring what the next 50 years might be like…