Founded in 1969 for those who could not study for a traditional degree, Britain’s largest university is an important bellwether for our attitudes to educationby Charlotte Lydia Riley / April 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
British people of a certain age have a shared cultural memory of the Open University. A lecturer—usually a man—appears on television dressed in an alarming outfit, standing in front of a chalkboard or behind a demonstration table, talking earnestly to the camera about particle physics, or the Reformation, or the Upper Volta rivers. This programme might have been glimpsed whilst someone was up in the middle of the night feeding a baby, or stumbling in from the pub, or perhaps by a small child looking for entertainment early on a Saturday morning and finding only education.
For many people in Britain, those kipper-tied academics doing a chalk-and-talk lecture were their first, or only, exposure to higher education. The OU has changed dramatically since it was first established in 1969; the ‘university of the air’ has mostly moved from the television to the internet, and the kipper ties are mostly banished to the back of the wardrobe. But it remains a world-class educational institution; and now, its budget is under threat to the tune of £100million.
University staff at many pre-92 institutions have recently completed fourteen days of strike action, sparked by threatened changes which would see substantial cuts to pensions. In the context of the intransigence of UUK, the representative body for university leadership, as well as many individual VCs’ antagonistic attitudes, staff and students have used this space to think critically about wider concerns about higher education. Teach-outs, talks and debates have been organised attacking conceptual debates focussed on one, fundamental, question: what is the purpose of higher education in today’s society?
The strikes tap into a longer-term sense of anxiety and discontent among many people working in universities across Britain. The obsessive approach to metrics in teaching and learning—the REF, the TEF, and the proliferation of league tables—have created an environment where universities can feel more like factory assembly lines than sites of learning.
Against this context, the recent announcement giving detail to the cuts to the OU’s budget, first announced in June of last year, was greeted with dismay. Leaked internal documents revealed that the £100 million cuts announced last summer would lead to 41 undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses being axed; the total number of courses, qualifications and modules on…