Open and shut?

People of my generation, and perhaps of my night time tendency to be awake, will probably have memories of the Open University as a provider of sometimes rather dry lectures on this and that academic subject in the late hours, occasionally with rather dodgy background sets. I was never an Open University student, but I watched a lot of Open University programmes on the BBC.

But for many people, the Open University was not something so casual. It was a key part of the then government’s drive to democratise education and create a more productive economy, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson as the key driver of this policy. Generations of students, many of whom would previously have had little opportunity to get a university degree, were now able to avail of higher education in conditions they could manage.

Now it appears that all of that may be at risk. As part of a major cost-cutting exercise to ensure the institution has a sustainable business model, measures are being taken which, according to some staff, will leave the OU as a digital online provider of higher education. Significant faculty dissent is being expressed, and some have asked whether the institution as a whole may now be vulnerable.

I have no standing to express a view on the rights and wrongs of current measures proposed in the OU. But I can say that the Open University pioneered an approach to higher education that has been of immense social and pedagogical importance, and that while the university system as a whole has changed enormously since 1969, the OU is still a vital part of it. Indeed the model has been copied elsewhere, as in the case for example of the University of South Africa (UNISA), which like the OU has gained an international footprint.

It is of real importance that the Open University continues to exist and to thrive.

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2 Comments on “Open and shut?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I think it had a pricing model formed in the late 60s when you had full employment and good wages which very soon changed. But the fee structure remained the same. Also I would argue it could’ve been widened to meet more of the needs of the unemployed.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    It was a September day in the early 90s, I had just made it to Sheffield to start my MA in the Language & Philosophy of Criticism at the local university, I was excited but also incredibly scared, it was the first time away from the family home and I had realised that the Yorkshire accent made English sound quite different from the language I thought I had learnt. Everything looked and sounded different to the eyes and ears of that girl from Southern Europe until that is I switched on the TV set in my B&B room and the familiar face of Stuart Hall appeared on the screen, he was running an Open University course on class and representation. It was at that moment that I felt for the first time at home in the country where I would spend most of my adult life. I watched that OU programme with the intensity of a spiritual experience, all my fears disappeared, I felt reassured that the choice I had made to leave my native country and study in the UK was the right one, it all made sense if Stuart Hall was there to greet me on my first day in Sheffield!

    As mentioned in a previous post “Stuart Hall RIP”
    my personal memories of Stuart Hall date back to the 1980s, when he was a frequent visitor speaker in the Department of English Literature at the Orientale University in Naples. Together with Richard Hoggart, the other ‘father’ of Cultural Studies and also a visitor to the Orientale in those years they contributed enormously to the Open University not only in terms of providing content for its programmes but to the project itself from its inception. It is somewhat a relief to think that both Hall and Hoggart are not around anymore to see the current crisis. One could only imagine the dismay they would have felt at the OU VC’s following statement:

    “The OU was set up as a wonderful social democratic institution. We’re now in a much more commercialised, marketised environment. Students have become consumers. The university has responded to that and needs to respond faster – in, for example, the focus on employability.”

    Wonderful democratic institutions are a thing of the past, the current marketised environment has not time for such old ideals!

    Perhaps one needs to have a view “on the rights and wrongs of current measures proposed in the OU” for the obvious reason that they are not an isolated example, staff cuts are happening elsewhere ( and, more importantly, because expressing a view means either to reject or to support that democratic, social ideal of education that the OU championed.

    As the recent USS pension dispute has made clear this is a crucial juncture in the history of the HE sector, watching on the margin is not an option for anyone.

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