Some of you may have seen this article in HEPI in which the author makes an argument against the possible establishment of a city centre base for the Open University. I will say up front, I have no insider knowledge here, and as I’m leaving, no skin in the game, these are more just thoughts based on being a long time OU and distance/online learning advocate.

The article makes a strange case, partly aligning their opposition to the move on the basis of CO2 emissions, which I’m not in a position to judge (but equally they offer no evidence for). Their argument is basically, if we all wish hard enough, academics will want to come to the existing Walton Hall campus. Yeah, that ship has sailed. Saying we could make it more attractive by innovating and that will attract new staff is going the wrong way I’d suggest – being able to work remotely and live, say, in beautiful West Wales while still being a full, active member of staff would be more of a draw for new staff I’d suggest.

The possible city centre provision (and from what I understand nothing has been decided yet, but options are being considered, which seems sensible), would not necessarily be for existing OU students. We might think of it as a separate offering, let’s call it F2F-OU (to be clear, that’s what I’m calling it, not a proposed brand name), that shares some resources with traditional OU, such as content, expertise, accrediting powers, etc. In this model students would either enrol with F2F-OU or Trad-OU (maybe there would be different fees? I don’t know). This does not contradict the existing OU offering or its open, distance, four nations remit.

There are some areas for concern here, the OU has not been great at large scale strategic moves (see USOU), and finances are tight across the sector. It’s an understatement to say this is not the ideal time to be thinking about opening a new F2F university. But I’m not in the meetings so don’t know what finance models are being proposed, I’d hope some independent oversight would be given to these. There are also legitimate concerns about lab facilities, particularly in STEM, and these would need to be resolved to maintain a decent research status. It might also be a huge distraction when we cannot accommodate it.

The bit I do find interesting though is more sector-wide. I occasionally give talks, during and after the pandemic, to HEIs who are now in the position of having to shift some provision online, become more flexible and find hybrid models that work economically and pedagogically. It would seem logical (but again, no inside knowledge here) that the F2F-OU offering would make use of existing OU content and supplement this with some F2F provision. Getting this hybrid blend right, so students have some of the benefits of F2F and the flexibility of high quality distance learning materials would be an attractive offer, not just to students, but as a model to the sector more widely. As F2F universities are embracing elements of an OU model, perhaps it makes sense for the OU to embrace elements of the F2F one. Whether the city centre move goes ahead or not, I think cracking that model would be the innovative and exciting piece here, whether for OU students or in collaboration with partner institutions. I don’t really care one way or the other about the move itself, but academically, if it is a catalyst for developing sustainable hybrid education models, then that is interesting (to me anyway).

These types of proposals can induce a good deal of anxiety, particularly around core values and mission and I’ve seen plenty of people projecting fears on to the proposal which are not part of what is being suggested. Maybe that’s inevitable when the proposed solution is still in relatively early stages. I had the sense of doom with the 2018 OU crisis, but I don’t feel it with this proposal (with the large caveat that this is only if the finances work out), since it doesn’t undermine the traditional OU offering and potentially offers a new model that is suitable for the type of robust higher education I have talked about elsewhere.

But hey, I’ll be on a beach sipping cocktails by 2030, so what do I know?


  • Will

    I agree with you Martin – it’s an opprtunity to delve into creating Hybrid learning approaches from the ground up rather than bolting it onto what we do currently. The facilities could really be tailored to support that (if done well!) – let me know which beach you’ll be on and I’ll join you for a cocktail. Will.

  • Nats

    I don’t understand the proposal put forward but after also attending a local council talk on the plans for the future of MK, I had that moment of realisation that this is all for the future generations and not for me. So now I just feel like I’m going through stages of grief..shock at the original proposal, sadness at the state of things and anger about what happens now while this is being looked at and those staff thst are desperately trying to hold on to what was!

  • Anne-Marie Scott

    I think Royal Roads has some grad programmes with a residency requirement which might sort of count as “hybrid” and AU has a residential within the MBA. Some of the new grad programmes in the Edinburgh Futures Institute also have an intensive work together component which can be attended in person by students who are otherwise online (not mandatory). I have a feeling that UNISA used to / has some residential components in their programming too – largely because synchronous online time can’t be guaranteed. I’m kind of interested in what having a hybrid / F2F component within OU programmes might support in terms of access and inclusion. Approached in that spirit it would seem like a fit for the OU ethos and purpose.

    Of course both Edinburgh and Royal Roads have swanky castles to show off, and I’m not entirely sure how Milton Keynes city centre stacks up in that regard?

  • Lynne Dixon

    A F2F OU? Well, we *used* to have one, didn’t we? When I started tutoring in the late 70s there were weekly/fortnightly tuorials at genuinely local ‘study centres’ which became an integral part of students’ routines (‘Wednesday night is OU night’) leading to high, often 100%, attendance rates. There were residential summer schools on all level 1 modules (foundation courses, as they were known then). There were regional centres, 13 of them (in cities even!) where tutors & students alike could seek support, by turning up in person, as well as making phone & postal contact with real people, not anonymous heldesk drones.

    I know I’m just an old fogey shouting into the wind. I know the world has moved on – & in my day I was a fierce advocate for online learning, but as an enhancement not a replacement for the best of F2F. Even so, I can’t help thinking of this as Operation Re-inventing the Wheel.

    • Lynne Dixon


      Besides, if the OU does decide an F2F option is the way to go, why would this mean abandoning the Walton Hall campus? Unless they’re unimaginatively restricting recruitment to the local population, students will need somewhere to live. A city centre base forces students to compete in the city rental market, whereas WH would lend itself to a student accommodation block.

  • Sam Kinsley

    Some interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing. Forgive me for being a little cynical but looking at the proposition of any form of ‘hybrid’ provision as anything other than a way of making more money from existing content, with little additional thought or workload granted to the staff concerned seems overly optimistic. There is no incentive from HE managers to actually invest in ensuring quality, I think it far more likely that institutions knee jerk shift to offer hybrid and online on top of existing provision and just adding it on to existing workloads. Extract additional rent out of existing assets, when it goes belly up those managers will probably have already moved on…

  • Tony

    The OU is, of course, a four nation university and not the university of Milton Keynes – it just happens to a university that has offices and research labs in Milton Keynes. Face-to-face teaching has been recently cut. If I were a student, I would be asking: “why will students who live close to Milton Keynes be getting face-to-face teaching, when we don’t?” There are clear issues of equity of provision at play here. One of the arguments I’ve heard from leaders is: “if we don’t do this, another university will”. My response to this: “let them; let them take on the financial and reputational risks – we should continue to do what we’re good at and not get distracted”. Maybe I am an old fogey (who actually isn’t that old), but then again, maybe I’ve see what has worked, what is missing, and how recent institutional changes have played out.

  • Dominic Newbould

    During my 33 years at the OU (Walton Hall version), I banged on and on about the need for an accommodation block. It made sense (to me, at least), to offer rooms to researchers, visitors, staff who needed to stay overnight, and newly-appointed staff while they searched for a permanent home. And I always anticipated that there would be Full Time and F2F students at some point – but I was told on-campus teaching was “not our core business”!
    Perhaps my “legacy mindset” makes it too difficult for me to think of feasible alternatives to Walton Hall, but the new campus site will have to be humongous to accommodate all the activities of the UK’s biggest university.

  • Steven Cousins

    There is significant reserved land around the OU precisely to allow for the University to expand. The currently underused buildings can offer space for a rapid testbed of OU blended F2F teaching to learn what works and what the built form might be needed to support this learning. F2F does not at all require a move to a Milton Keynes city centre site. The currently under used buildings on campus would find a purpose if the stated wish for up to 20,000 F2F students were even partly reached.

    If face-to-face has a value to student learning can we ask whether staff regularly coming in to work on campus and having face-to-face interaction between themselves, their research students, lab technicians and in future, undergrads, might also be productive ? And the buildings at WH get used.

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