Open University set to go digital and shrinks budget

The Open University or OU – the world’s first successful distance teaching university – is going digital and being streamlined in a bid to “radically reinvent itself” and make massive savings in the run-up to its 50th anniversary.

In plans announced by Vice-Chancellor Peter Horrocks on 14 June, the institution will have to find savings of £100 million (US$128 million) from its £420 million budget.

Founded in 1969 under the leadership of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, the aim was to use communications technology to bring high-quality degree learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend traditional campus universities, based on a plan that Wilson had first sketched out one morning in 1963 for a ‘University of the Air’.

Horrocks said: “We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud – a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy.”

From its inception the OU was revolutionary in seeking to adopt an open admissions policy while attaining the highest standards of scholarship. When it accepted its first students in 1971, 25,000 people enrolled and 20,000 registered on a course, at a time when the total UK student population was around 130,000.

Horrocks said today a revitalised and redesigned OU should be at the heart of the digital revolution by becoming a leading exponent of the use of digital technology for teaching and supporting students; by helping educate the digital citizens of the future; and by undertaking research that can help equip society for a digital world.

The Open University transformation programme will be shaped to deliver over the next two years:
  • • World leading part-time distance learning and teaching with digital innovation at its heart;
  • • A streamlined curriculum shaped to students’ needs and adaptable to change;
  • • High-quality research focused closely on the teaching curriculum to maximise its impact;
  • • Close links to employers to ensure the curriculum reflects the skills they need;
  • • A redesigned university free from duplication, overlapping responsibilities, unnecessary bureaucracy and inefficiencies which have developed over decades.
In a statement, the Open University said the proposals are designed to recognise future economic challenges and to provide leadership in preparing the wider workforce for a time of unprecedented change.

The Open University believes it can play a crucial role in helping employers and employees respond to the rapid rise in automation, which is expected to sweep away millions of existing jobs. The rising generation of students may be the first who routinely have to retrain and improve their skills throughout their careers to adapt to a rapidly evolving economy.

Some of the savings are being forced on the university by funding changes introduced since 2007 by successive UK governments – the introduction of tuition fees and in particular the trebling of the tuition fee cap in 2012 – which have hit hard the number of part-time students entering higher education in England. Student numbers at the OU have fallen by almost a third in the past decade, which has had a significant impact on income.

At the same time, fixed costs have remained relatively static and in a changing market place competitors are ‘cherry picking’ popular and profitable courses.

The OU is used to disruptive change, but perhaps not on this scale. Back in the 1980s, for instance, methods of learning adapted to the replacement of typewriters with computers, and the introduction of video recorders, replacing the need to set the alarm to view the OU’s early morning broadcasts.

Today course delivery takes full advantage of the internet, with students learning online and on mobile devices, and using high-tech tools like the virtual microscope.

OU content is freely available through OpenLearn and social media, including via iTunes U and YouTube, and as part of FutureLearn – an international university collaboration to bring online learning to a global audience. Today more than 180,000 students interact with the OU online from home.

The new transformation process will be designed to put the OU on a sustainable financial footing. It is intended that more than half of the planned £100 million savings will be reinvested in building a university fit for the next 50 years.

Change on this scale will inevitably impact on staff because staff make up two-thirds of the university’s operating costs, the OU said.

Among the issues to be tackled are duplication and inefficiency resulting from years of piecemeal development, a problem faced by most universities; courses on the curriculum which were once popular but which now struggle to cover costs and others which have never attracted many students; and research costs which outstrip grant income.

The proposed changes in teaching, research, IT systems and the running of the university will inevitably mean that the number and types of roles will change. In coming years, fewer people will be needed overall, the OU said. Detailed work will be carried out over the next six months to clarify the figures and the scale of change.

‘Digital by design’

The OU said the revamp will create a revitalised institution that is “digital by design and places the needs of students and the wider economy at the centre of all it does”.

Horrocks said: “The OU will still be the OU. We will retain our core mission of offering higher education to all, regardless of background or previous qualifications. But we will be delivering it in a different way, matching future needs to future technology.

“We were disruptive and revolutionary in our use of technology in 1969, and as we approach our 50th year, we intend to be disruptive and revolutionary again, to transform the life chances of tens of thousands of future learners.”

The OU said despite going digital, it would still retain the ability to provide students with disabilities and students in prison with study materials in alternative formats if needed.

The proposed teaching model still provides for face-to-face contact, though much more emphasis is placed on online tutorials.

Regarding access to IT, the OU’s own research shows that most students already own a device that would be compatible to the digital design requirements. However, for those students who do not own devices, including the socially disadvantaged, loans are available and a full set up of tablet, PC, external monitor, keyboard and mouse can be bought for as little as £320. Students are also provided with Wi-Fi on any UK university campus.