OU,  post-OU

The OU – a love letter

Now that I have finally, finally left the Open University (I know, it’s been like the end of Lord of the Rings, with about 20 times you think “This is the endpoint, right?”), I thought I’d say some nice things about it as an institution. Beyond a couple of people and a handful of dogs, the Open University has been the great love of my life. Now, don’t misunderstand me – it has its fair share (maybe even more than most) of obstructive bureaucracy, frustrating processes and toxic staff, which I’ve experienced more than I would wish, so this is not a piece of blind propaganda. But I want to celebrate the best of it, having spent the bulk of my adult life working there.

Firstly, its very existence is a wonder. Like Wikipedia, you feel that it shouldn’t really exist or function as well as it does. It is inconceivable to me that if we didn’t already have it, any modern Government would have the vision and desire to push it through to creation. You can imagine the backlash the right wing press would create at the idea, the headlines of Mickey Mouse university, the indignation at a non-campus based approach to higher education. The arguments about how it would serve industry, who would fund it, why should people be allowed to study this way. Or worse, they would establish it in partnership with a commercial offering, the Microsoft Open University, which would quickly be directed away from any non-vocational subjects. It would, in short, be a clusterfuck. They’d probably invest billions and then it would become mired in competing directions from different stakeholders, like an educational HS2, unloved and waiting for somebody to take it over.

Instead it is a national treasure. The innovation of open entry (ie you do not need A levels or other qualifications to enter higher education) remains, I think, the most impactful interpretation of the many different forms of open education. For all of the “levelling up” and “social mobility” agendas we have had over the past couple of decades, there is no single policy that has such a direct and demonstrable impact as open entry combined with flexible study. While other institutions have moved into the mature students space, it remains the dominant “Second Chance University”.

This social justice mission also means that many of the people I have worked with over the years are from diverse backgrounds. Many colleagues have themselves come into higher ed through the OU, or from industry. I don’t know the data, but my guess would be that the OU has a higher proportion of first-in-family to attend university as staff members than most HEIs. This makes working there pretty collegial and pleasurable on the whole – a lot of that inherent hierarchy and snobbery you still encounter in much of higher ed is absent (well, mostly anyway).

Various funding policies and performance metrics have not always treated the OU well, and it is still a constant battle to remind policy makers that not all of higher education resembles their own Russell Group experience. Politicians, the media and society in general need to act responsibly with regards to the OU, and recognise it for the treasure that it remains. Because I fear that if they were careless it could disappear with a callous shrug, and we’d never get it back. Only then would we appreciate the full value it offers.

My identity has long been allied with the OU, I am, in my own head at least, “Martin from the OU”. I used to feel anxiety and anguish about its troubles, the same way you do about a close family member going through a tough time. I have Emeritus status now, so I remain allied to it to an extent, but I am on the outside, so I feel that connection less. This is necessary as I establish a new identity, but I’d still fight a duel with textbooks at sunrise to protect its honour. As Joan Didion puts it “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from” and the OU is as good a place as any.


  • Anne-Marie Scott

    As a product of some wild 1970s experiments myself I have found myself curiously fond of Athabasca for many of the same reasons that you note here. If education is a worthy cause then these weirdo open places are the sweet spot. I still include “Athabasca University (Canada’s equivalent to the UK Open Uni)” in biographies because people just *get* what that means. The OU has a special profile and place in people’s understanding.

    I believe Harold Wilson argued for the OU on the basis that “it is neither fair to those excluded from higher education nor acceptable in a nation whose need for more trained men and women is so great in a world of remorseless scientific and technological change.”

    Thankfully that’s all changed now eh?

    I agree that I can’t imagine anyone setting these wonderful places up these days, or if they did they would be terrible patronising job-training adjacent schemes. Jenny Lee would spin in her grave.

  • Alan Levine

    At least it happened before. A week ago I got to record a podcast with Tony Bates who was there from the start. That kind of broad public / government support for education was a long lasting investment, even if now a thing of the past, it has breath.

    Don’t worry Martin! Your podcast will be edited first, but know that 30 years looks short on Tony’s span!

    Good for the OU and you both for that love.

  • Dominic Newbould

    I worked at the OU from 1978 until 2011 and, looking back at how it has adapted and innovated over the years – and is still doing so – I can see that the withdrawal of government funding has had the most damaging impact. The reluctance of government ministers to allow access to student loans for part-time students was the deepest cut, although that may have changed since I left.
    These short-sighted government actions have forced the university to increase student fees at a time when almost everybody is struggling to make ends meet.
    The OU will always be a fantastic option for working people – those who want or need to work and study at the same time. It remains an essential opportunity for people who have mobility problems; and, perhaps most of all, it offers the chance for people to gain new learning and qualifications as the world around us changes rapidly. Sometimes, responding to change, we need to re-engineer ourselves, and this facility is exactly what the OU offers and provides with great professionalism and skill.
    It is certainly not a “leviathan …crawling to its end” (as I read in one recent comment), and it would be foolish as well as unhelpful to predict its demise and promote the idea that it is somehow no longer an incredibly valuable university, still doing amazing teaching and research, still at the cutting edge of new technology and modern pedagogy. And I hope that you will make active use of your emeritus status to keep fighting for this awesome university, probably the most important educational initiative of the post-war consensus, and beyond.

  • Leo Havemann

    Well who doesn’t love another LOTR ending, sequel, prequel, oh except that new one. But yes. How amazing and brilliant that the OU exists. In these demoralising times in which we find ourselves such a radical act as its creation seems unthinkable. Remarkable, reading open education literature from around the world, how often the OU is referenced as a model which inspired institutions and practices in other countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *