Open Eye: Breaking down barriers

Seeing an OU programme on TV prompted award-winning Basque writer Asun Balzola to sign up for a BA course. She talks to Maria Bengoa about the challenge it presents

Asun Balzola is studying for an OU degree from her home in Madrid. Disabled following a serious accident in her youth, she is a children's author and illustrator who has won several prestigious awards for her work, and is a leading figure in the Basque cultural scene.

"My activities are always determined by my physical limitations. I couldn't go and row a boat, for example," she says.

Among her hobbies, she singles out studying with the Open University.

"I am now into my third year of study for a Bachelor of Arts degree, and it will take me another three years to complete because two years at the Open University are the equivalent of one at a conventional British university".

For the Basque writer and illustrator: "Studying in the Spanish language would not be half as satisfying as my current studies in English. And a further advantage is that my English studies oblige me to adopt an objective view and approach to learning.

"You are encouraged to consider a particular theme from various standpoints. This is very good for training yourself to think methodically and to argue a thesis in the most unrestricted way possible.

"The Open University differs from UNED (the Spanish Distance Education University) in that one does not need an entrance qualification or verifiable minimum standard of previous education before starting a course of study."

Asun loves travelling. She travels extensively in Italy and frequently visits a friend in Cambridge. It was during a stay there that she first saw OU programmes on television, and that the idea of registering for a course of study first occurred to her: "It seemed so well done that I was encouraged to try it for myself," she recalled.

But her visits to Cambridge have some disadvantages: "Every time I go to England I have to stop smoking because of the disapproval implicit in the looks of horror on the faces of the people when I light up!"

She says she is satisfied with her academic progress: "The first year I had poor grades, the second year I achieved average grades and this year so far I am gaining above average ones."

She finds it exciting, studying at this level because she enjoys the challenge. "It is like exercise. I have worked hard and I have already developed muscle. I need to continue. As I cannot physically make a stand, I can demonstrate my commitment and solidarity through my work and studies."

She sketches and does her illustrations during the mornings, and studies during the afternoons. In her Madrid home where she spends most of her time she has two different tables, one for her illustrating and another for her studies.

"You have to organise yourself well because you need to work hard and long. It is necessary to produce and deliver one assignment each month during the eight months of the course and at the end you take a final exam.

"The OU is very considerate to people with disabilities: the textbooks are especially adapted and many other facilities are provided to assist in taking the exam - if necessary you can take the exam in your own home."

The Bachelor of Arts Degree for which Asun is studying includes many varied subjects - "The first year was a course about the Victorian Era in Great Britain; I studied English literature, painting and philosophy. The second year was dedicated to English literature and this year I am studying modern world literature - curiously, I am studying the Spanish poet Lorca in English. I am astonished at the English versions of his poetry!"

The writer has recently published her first book for adults, Txoriburu, an account of her childhood in Bilbao in the 1940s.

Among English authors she identifies herself with the Bronte sisters, who were 'just a little eccentric'. As a girl, Asun was a bad student: "I achieved good marks in the things that interested me, and in the rest, zero. I should have studied then but so what - I have discovered the pleasure of studying late. Who could ask for more?"

Maria Bengoa is a writer with El Correo in Bilbao

The growing number of OU students like Asun in continental western Europe, are profiled in the most detailed survey the University has ever conducted.

More than 4,700 people are registered with the OU in EU countries outside the UK and Ireland, plus Switzerland, Slovenia, Slovakia and Hungary. (This does not include students with the British Forces overseas.) They study exactly the same courses as students in the UK.

While there is no such thing as a typical European student, the survey suggests they are more cosmopolitan, more geographically mobile and keener on electronic communications than their OU counterparts.

The large majority are fluent in at least two languages, two-thirds are on-line and more than half chose to study with the OU because it offers flexibility across international boundaries.

Sixty-nine different nationalities were recorded in the survey. Just under half are British.

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