According to Martin Bean, the Open University’s vice-chancellor, now is the “web moment” for higher education. It is indeed. The Open University (OU) has vastly more potential in the current era of the internet and smartphone than it did when it began. The internet offers scope for “distance learning” that would have been inconceivable to earlier generations. A new acronym has gained prominence: MOOCs, or “massive online open courses,” which now have a potentially global reach. Two high-level promoters of such MOOCs are Coursera, set up by Stanford academics, and EdX, an online collaboration between MIT and Harvard.
A report published in October, entitled “University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility,” by Alan Milburn, chair of the independent social mobility and child poverty commission, highlighted the depressing fact that 18 year olds who have been unlucky in their schooling can’t gain admission to the highest-quality courses—and, more disquietingly, they have no second chance. We can’t wait until high-quality teaching at school is available across the full geographical and social spectrum. That will take years. So we quickly need a system that is less compartmentalised, with more alternative routes and more transfers between institutions. Some 71 per cent of OU students are studying while in employment, and four out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored their staff on OU courses. In Australia, students are able to move around within institutions as their expectations and needs change. We need a similar system here, giving students flexibility when their situation alters.
The OU has been a pathfinder. Its well-tested model of distance learning, supplemented by a network of local tutors, dates back to 1971. It was the brainchild of the great social entrepreneur Michael Young and is the most durable legacy of two Labour politicians, Jennie Lee and Harold Wilson. But now it can hugely expand its impact, in the UK and worldwide, by seizing the opportunities offered by new technology, in conjunction with its wealth of experience.
Unlike most of the newer providers of distance learning, the OU enables students to work towards a recognised qualification. Students have also consistently emphasised how crucial the university’s mentoring system is, and other online learning organisations do not offer this. Indeed, the OU was ranked fourth for student satisfaction in the UK’s most recent National Student Survey.
Britains’s higher education system has undergone welcome expansion since the 1960s, but it is still too homogeneous and inflexible. A traditional honours degree isn’t appropriate for 40 per cent of school leavers; indeed, I think it’s too specialised for almost all students. There needs to be a more diverse ecology, from informal learning using credits to a traditional degree, and indeed a blurring between higher and further education.
The OU can play a special role, enabling people of any age and background to boost their higher education. Now that we are living longer, in a faster-changing environment, the importance of mature students, part-time courses and distance learning will grow.
Distance learning cannot replace the cultural and communal experience found at the better universities. But it may erode demand for the traditional mass university, like many on mainland Europe and in India, where students are offered little more than a passive role as part of a large audience in lectures (generally of mediocre quality) with minimal feedback. The OU offers flexibility and variety in the narrow world of higher education.