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Chalk Talk: Students can't pay their course fees? Then let's have a whip-round


A sign of the times, I fear – lecturers at the Open University have been asked to dip into their pockets and help pay their students' fees. The money will go towards students opting for the OU's "Openings" courses, designed to prepare those without the necessary qualifications for a degree or further education course – whose fees are rising from £195 to £625 next September.

In an email to staff, the OU says: "These are unprecedented times for the institution. We are determined to ensure that we can continue to provide opportunities for the most disadvantaged."

The rationale is that students on the "openings" courses are not eligible for loans or for financial aid from the Government's National Scholarship Programme for the hard-up. The OU hopes the money raised will mean no student has to pay more than £25.

Millionaire entrepreneur Sir Alec Reed, a supporter of the OU, and the OU's pro vice-chancellor, Lord Haskins, have agreed to match any donations contributed by staff. The OU Students Educational Trust has already given £100,000.

But the initiative is not universally popular. Lecturers' leaders are unhappy about it, for one. "It is a shattering indictment of government funding policy that some universities are now asking staff for the academic equivalent of a whip-round to support students," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union.

The OU counters by saying the "openings" courses are "a vital gateway" to study and give confidence to people with no prior higher education experience.

Last week, we drew attention to the fact that the JCB Academy in Staffordshire, the flagship University Technical College praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove, would score 0 per cent in his English Baccalaureate. We were right with the figure, however, it was not because students do not take languages – they are compulsory for all students up to the age of 16. It is because they do not take GCSEs in history or geography.