Education: A-Z of universities: Open Universlty

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The Independent Online
Age: 29

Address: No campus as such. This is the university of the air. You study at home or at work at your own pace and visit local tutors at 305 study centres in the United Kingdom.

Ambience: Forget the old image of middle-aged housewives watching anoraks teaching thermodynamics at 3am. The OU is now dead cool, with the largest number of students aged 25 to 45. There are still summer schools held at universities throughout the country - which some find daunting rather than an opportunity for a rave. Although most students never see it, Walton Hall is the OU's 70-acre administration building in Milton Keynes. It contains 3,000 staff plus BBC people who make the OU's radio and TV programmes. Plus 200 postgraduates.

Vital statistics: Harold Wilson's baby, the OU is arguably his greatest legacy. Whatever the stuffed shirts said in the 1960s, no one doubts the excellence of its degree courses today. Its reputation is global. It is Britain's largest single teaching institution - more than 200,000 people study OU courses each year. Last year almost 125,000 undergraduates signed up.

Added value: Lays on specialist courses with industry and professional bodies eg manufacturing and technology, computing, health and social welfare. Has carved out a niche for students with disabilities. There are 5,500 of them.

Easy to get into? Yes. Open to all. No formal entry requirements. Around one-third of undergraduates start with less than the minimum entry requirements for traditional universities.

Glittering alumni: Actresses Sheila Hancock, Connie Booth, Pippa Hinchley (Coronation Street), Susan Tully and Lindsay Coulson (EastEnders) and Kika Mirylees (Darling Buds of May). Micky Dolenz of the Monkees; football manager Dave Sexton; TV presenter Matthew Kelly; Dan Dare cartoon creator Frank Hampson; Hubert Gregg, veteran songwriter and broadcaster; the late Lord Gardiner, former Lord Chancellor; MPs Barbara Follett, Adam Ingram, John McFall, John Battle and Chris Pond; MEP Glenys Kinnock.

Transport links: Not needed: the OU comes to your door.

Who's the boss? Sir John Daniel, enthusiast for new technologies in distance education and the first person to preach in Westminster Abbey from a laptop computer.

Teaching rating: Has only been rated for one subject under the new methodology - sociology and it got top marks, 24 out of 24.

Research: Came 45th out of 101 in the 1996 research assessment exercise. Achieved top grade - a 5 - in educational technology, earth sciences, art and design, history, history of art and music.

Financial health: In the black again after dipping into the red in 1995- 96 for the first time since 1987.

Nightlife: With 80 per cent of students working for a living, there isn't much time for clubbing. Most do OU work in the evenings. Proof is that 30,000 students have on-line access to computer conferencing to support their studies - with peak activity taking place between 8pm and midnight.

Cheap to study in? Average cost of a degree last year was pounds 3,500. (Average time taken to complete a degree: six years.) Help is available for the unemployed and low-waged.

Buzz-sentences: CMAs and TMAs are in the post. Fingers crossed for a good OCAS. (I've done my coursework. I hope my mark's all right.)

Next week: Oxford.