Open Eye: First Tuesday - Oxymoron? Or is it academic progress?

Exactly what, a German friend asked the other day, is an oxymoron?

It's usually easier to give an illustration than to define "sharply foolish" (Question: is the definition of oxymoron itself an oxymoron?) so I threw at him what is probably the most frequently- quoted example: "Military Intelligence."

This was lost on him, but it does give me the opportunity to relate that a Nato general recently told a former colleague of mine, rather condescendingly, he thought, that his reporting from Croatia had been "not inaccurate" - offering the Heaven-sent providence for him to reply: "Which is more than can be said for your bombing..."

But I digress.

"Epicurean Pessimist", coined by Voltaire in 1890, didn't work for Uli either.

I tried "Considerate German" with similar results, and then "Friendly Fire". It was not until somewhere after "Good Lawyer" and "Helpful Accountant" and between "Free Service" and "Internet Helpline" that he finally twigged.

"Ach zo!" he exclaimed (I exaggerate only slightly).

"Then what about 'Open University'?"

At this stage I was sorely tempted to sprint back to the top of this column and add "German Friend" to the list.

Instead, overcome, apparently, by a fit of diplomacy, I went into the spiel (Good German Word?) about the OU's being open as to access, open as to opportunity, open as to distance, to people, to places, to methods, to ideas...

He said that of course he knew all that.

He was, he said, referring to every other university.

There's probably no such thing, these days, anywhere, I conceded, as an open campus.

I remember how one vice- chancellor of my acquaintance was heartbroken at the realisation that he had to approve manned entrance barriers and gates, and coded locks on all the doors, in addition to having every scanner, computer screen and hard drive bolted down to prevent their walking.

(When I first went to Fleet Street, I had tried to console him, all the typewriters were chained down - but that was less to prevent theft than to stop reporters throwing them. This was before the discovery of Stress Counselling.)

So what about student access to conventional universities, Ulrich persisted. They're hardly "open", are they?

But they are. They are. We have this constant quote about how in my day only three per cent went to university, and now it's more than ten times that number. And the scurrilous Press, especially of the broadsheet persuasion, is always searching for - and, shock, horror, inevitably, finding - instances of degree courses in Brick-laying and Golf Studies.

And when they have exposed these and similar outrages they move on to how standards for admission have declined from three high-grade A-levels, in their day, to the ability to spell "eleven-plus". (By the way, in my experience, nine out of ten graduates are unable to spell the word "overdraft".)

How "open" can you get?

How "open" do you want?

And the conventional universities have just gone through this great annual trauma of "clearing", which always seems to concentrate the mind. I received an e-mail during August from a bemused friend at a former polytechnic with the message:

"We need only 4,000 more students - and then we'll have achieved our recruitment target for this year!"

Sounds pretty open to me.

Of course, it shouldn't matter to "conventional" universities, any more than it does to the OU: what matters is not so much what you've done, as what you can do. If you start a degree, can you finish it?

There's one university on mainland Europe - the only one, I believe, that has more than the OU's 160,000 students - which has a drop-out rate of 70 per cent.

Bums on seats are all very well, but this one has more bums than it has chairs, so the likelihood is that, if everybody turned up, some would perforce be sent home.

Eventually, like distance learning (this space, last month), they will all get round to doing things the OU way.

But don't hold your breath. As I could have said to Uli, there's such a thing as "Academic Progress"...

Users of the OU alumni website ( may be scanning these pages for a handful of reviews of books by OU graduates, as promised in a recent round-robin to registered members. The reviews have been forced out by pressure on space but will appear in the October 5 issue. Meanwhile, if any reader and OU graduate or student (or staff member, even) is about to burst into print, it would be a good idea to ensure that a review copy is sent to Open Eye at the address opposite. If we don't know about it, we can't write about it. Or should we perhaps add to the list, "Modest Author"?