Brenda Gourley: The OU's partnerships will deliver high-quality learning and teaching

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The Independent Online

A groundbreaking partnership was agreed last month between the University of Manchester and The Open University (OU), primarily to deliver high quality learning and teaching opportunities to previously untapped student markets overseas. The UK's two largest universities will draw on their complementary strengths to develop and offer flexible degree programmes to overseas students who want to combine study in the UK with distance learning in their home country, as well as to campus-based students in the UK.

This partnership symbolises the dramatic changes in higher education the world over. The combined forces of the demand for higher level skills, the democratisation of access to higher education and the marvels of technology have created an entirely new world from that of higher education even 10 years ago. Education has not only become big business (and not simply the domain of the public sector), it has gone global.

We see evidence of this in the massive demand for education worldwide, the huge migration of students seeking educational opportunities - with more than 275,000 students from over 200 countries studying in the UK - and in the amount of cross-border education where growing numbers of institutions have e-learning offerings or some form of distance education. We see it also in the changing age profile of students as they come to universities to add to their portfolio of knowledge and skills throughout their lives, and in the behaviour of students who are picking their courses from different universities across the world depending on where they believe they will get best value. And crucially we see it in the rise of the corporate university and the private sector moving aggressively into the domain of the public sector.

This is a world of fierce and continuing competition where the playing fields are daily becoming flatter, and where even institutions such as the University of Manchester and the OU - both distinctive and illustrious in different ways - come to find themselves in a situation where they may well be stronger in a collaborative partnership than they are outside one - for certain purposes at least.

It is no accident that working in partnership is one of the OU's strategic priorities. It is not possible to contain all facets of any discipline within geographical or cultural boundaries - nor indeed understanding of markets in every sphere. To this end, the OU has partnerships in both the public and private sector, in places as far flung as India, Asia, Turkey, Russia and parts of Africa. This partnership with Manchester is our first large strategic alliance in the UK. It will enhance our joint capacity on various fronts.

Together we can offer students possibilities that extend beyond what we could individually offer - and that is true not only on the international front. We will not do everything together but will pick and choose where there are synergies that make sense. That is the best basis for a successful partnership: a union where together we are more than the sum of our parts.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor of The Open University