Brenday Gourley: Why the OU is at the top of the class

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The Independent Online

The findings of the first National Student Survey indicate that students at the Open University are more impressed by the quality of their courses than those at any other university. The survey results also show that the university achieved the highest overall score for assessment and feedback.

The results put the university at the top of a rankings table created by the Times Higher Education Supplement. In the survey, participating students were asked to rate their universities on a range of areas, which included teaching and learning resources. They were also asked to provide an "overall satisfaction" rating, for which the OU achieved 4.5 out of a possible five points - an achievement shared only by the Royal Academy of Music.

There would be a range of factors leading to students rating the university so highly. The OU is at the forefront in developing high-quality multimedia teaching materials using specialists, not only from each academic discipline, but also from the fields of educational technology, media and others. Working alongside these specialists are teams of teaching and support staff who offer a high level of student support through tutorials, e-mail and telephone contact, as well as residential schools occasionally. Although students at the OU are spread across the world, they never need to work in isolation: we strive to be as "present" as possible.

What makes the results particularly impressive is that not only are we satisfying our students at a high level, we are doing so on a large scale. The OU has the largest student population of any UK university. Moreover, we do not require undergraduate students to have any previous qualifications. We are truly "open".

But what about the social side of university life? What surprises many people new to the OU is how interconnected our students are. The world's largest online academic community is hosted by the OU: students communicate through virtual conferencing and seminars. Chat rooms, support groups, societies and clubs all flourish. As a result, students can now talk freely across race, cultural and class divides - a marvellous example of a global community involving people from over 40 countries.

Above all, study with the OU requires commitment and dedication to succeed. We make every effort to ensure that our course materials, support and systems are of the highest quality and the students' commitment is matched by our own. I am delighted that - in rating the university so highly - our students recognise this and acknowledge the success of the OU's unique methods in supported open learning.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor of the Open University