Walton Hall, which houses the office of the Vice-Chancellor, the UK Open University

A trip down Memory Lane

I’ve just returned from a very interesting week in Europe, accompanied by my colleague, Maxim Jean-Louis, the President of Contact North. My philosophy in life is never look back. So my visit to the Open University in England was the first time I had been there in 23 years, since I emigrated to Canada. Similarly, I had worked at the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya – or UOC) as a part-time research professor between 2003-2007, and again I hadn’t been back for five years. The third place I visited was the London Knowledge Lab at the Institute of Education, University of London, where I was a post-graduate student so long ago that I typed my thesis on an IBM golf-ball typewriter (which is about all I can remember of the experience).

First, amazingly, there were still very good friends and colleagues working at all these institutions, and I was somewhat discombobulated by the very warm welcome I received from them. MOOCs may come and go, but good friends are for life. Second, the dynamism that made all these places fun to work at is still there.

Why I was there

I will be writing detailed reports on each of these visits, but the purpose of my visit from my perspective was to look at the research being done on online learning in these three institutions, and there was great work being done in each place. Maxim’s interest was to identify the real ‘game-changers’ in online learning. More to come on this in later posts.

Money is the root of all evil

However, transcending both purposes is the current financial context in both the UK and Spain. These countries are undergoing profound economic stress and the two open universities are not able to avoid the consequences, although the challenges differ according to the context.

In particular, the UK Open University, which has been and continues to be immensely successful, with over 180,000 credit students, is suffering the law of unintended consequences. The UK government, in its wisdom, has completely changed the system of post-secondary funding. In effect, it has stopped giving universities funding to support teaching. Instead, universities now have to depend entirely on student tuition fees at around $15,000 per student per year. To cover the costs, students can take out low interest loans which are underwritten by the government. However, to qualify for such loans, students must take a full time ‘load’ of courses.

This financial strategy strikes at the very heart of the Open University. It has been forced to move from essentially a ‘free’ university to one where students are now paying around $7,500 a year in tuition fees, which is still less than half the going rate at most other universities in England and Wales. However, most of its students are working adults, and are not taking a full load of courses. Indeed, many of them are somewhat like MOOC students, taking individual courses or unique combination of courses that fit their particular needs as adults. These however do not lead to the ‘recognized qualifications’ that makes them eligible for a student loan. Thus the change in financing is devastating for many low-income learners wanting to study through the Open University, as well as for the university. As its Vice-Chancellor stated to us, if you want to look at a successful model for financing higher education, don’t look at Britain. Maybe Canada’s Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England, can help!

Meeting the challenge

Not surprisingly, the OU is looking at a range of strategies, including a strong move to internationalizing its offerings, to ensure its survival, and indeed it has seen a change in its student demographics, with younger students who under previous conditions would be applying to conventional institutions instead opting for the lower cost but still high quality and more flexible programs offered by the Open University. So you win some and you lose some. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that the current UK government’s financial strategy for higher education is a temporary aberration – isn’t that what elections are for in a democracy?

Watch this space

The next posts on these institutions will focus on the positive, the very interesting work they are doing in research in online learning.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here