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Open University under threat

Nick RNick Rogers* laments the coming of a philistine utilitarian view of education that is now threatening to destroy everything the OU has worked for since its foundation

The Open University’s Department of Earth Sciences has punched well above weight for 40 years, building an enviable reputation.  It is now under threat from the Brown Review and changes in HE funding affecting the whole Open University.

A few years ago the Labour government introduced an ‘equivalent or lower qualification’ (ELQ) policy, whereby if you already had a degree then the government would not pay its share of the fees towards a second.  This had a minimal effect elsewhere in HE but caused a 10-20% reduction in OU core funding from 2007-11. 


ELQ was but a prelude to the Brown Review.  Now, from October 2012 the OU will have to charge £5000 for the equivalent of a year’s tuition.  This means that the popular Level Two Geology module, currently a snip at £350, will cost £1250.  Students can get loans for this if they are registered for a qualification and studying at a rate of 30 credits per year.  Currently OU students can build up credit for a qualification that they do not need to declare at the outset.  This new requirement requires a complete turnaround in OU operations and student behaviour.  Result?  The OU is now in direct competition with the rest of the sector. 

The funding changes reflect a more general shift towards a ‘utilitarian’ view of education in which its purpose becomes to create a skilled and qualified workforce able to contribute to the knowledge-based economy.  These views have been progressively espoused in various utterances from ministers, officials and advisers of almost every political hue over the past decade. 


Education is not just vocational training; but politicians seem to have forgotten that.  Where, in today’s cutthroat HE market, is social wellbeing, developing an informed society regardless of income or status? The Open University has played a pre-eminent role in achieving these for over 40 years, but its position at the epicentre of adult higher education is now vitally threatened by educational utilitarianism.

The OU showed how part-time distance education could produce graduates with degree-level knowledge and skills.  By introducing university education to those sectors of society who had been denied it, the OU made a major contribution towards ‘life-long learning’.  It gave adults the chance to interact with their fellow students, tutors and academics, all passionate about their subject, and not for the sake of getting a better job, but because it helped sate their hunger for knowledge.  Such broader benefits are now being ignored.  Sadly, they cannot be reduced to a simple metric.

The OU’s original purpose was to increase social mobility and well-being through higher education.  No doubt part of the motivation was utilitarian, but this was not at the forefront among 69’ers who pioneered the OU from temporary huts on the outskirts of Bletchley.  Ian Gass, our first Professor, said that their aim was not to train Earth scientists but to provide an education in Earth sciences.  The question remains as to whether it will be in a position to make that claim for future generations. 

* Nick Rogers is Chair of the Education Committee, The Geological Society, and is Associate Dean and Science Programme Director, The Open University