Open View: The Government's latest money-saving ruse will prove harmful to lifelong learning

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The Independent Online

It was four decades ago this autumn that the Government decided to work out a comprehensive plan for an "open university".

We are immensely proud of what has been achieved in that time; the hundreds of thousands of students who have benefited – and continue to benefit – from the courses we offer.

In the latest National Student Survey, The Open University came out top for student satisfaction for the third year in a row. No one in the university takes this achievement for granted. This survey has gained in authority since its inception, with previously sceptical institutions joining in the process. The outcome is now a key benchmark of performance.

It matters to The Open University that its mode of delivery should be ranked ahead of conventional forms of study. And it is a cause of perpetual surprise that the OU should be so favourably regarded by what is the most informed student body in the system. A quarter of our undergraduates have already studied in other universities. They are mature and demanding customers, able to compare our service with a range of experiences in the full-time sector.

We continue to look forward to our future and we are proud of our heritage. In September 1967, Harold Wilson's cabinet took the crucial decision to plan for our creation.

Yet, fast forward 40 years and ministers have taken a decision which will mean Government support will no longer be available for those taking a qualification equal to or lower than the one they already hold (so-called ELQ students).

The Open University is threatened with a loss of more than £30m of its teaching income. It will have a real impact on those who have a degree but want to continue with their education, to develop their skills, to improve their employment chances or further their careers.

For the OU and other institutions in the part-time sector, this is the biggest cut in funded numbers the English higher education system has witnessed for a generation.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) argues that it wants to prioritise first-time over second-time learners, and that it wishes to spend the £100m that it is extracting from a number of universities on other priorities. In the absence of any prior debate about the issue of ELQ students, mystery surrounds the Department's motives for attacking this category of study for the sake of redistributing just 0.1 per cent of its higher education budget.

There is surprise across the UK. Whatever the arguments that have persuaded ministers at DIUS to propose these changes, they have not been accepted by the Scottish and Welsh administrations. In Northern Ireland it is fine for ELQ students to study in the province's two local universities but not in the OU.

There is surprise among all of us who are working to support the Government's skills agenda. We, who have been supplying this re-skilling, do not understand the sudden assault on those whose degrees were taken before the personal computer and the internet had been conceived.

We believe this decision runs contrary to delivering lifelong learning. It means people will be deprived of the opportunity to learn and develop and, in turn, contribute economically through continued and improved employment.

Forty years ago, the Government made a bold, far-sighted decision; this new decision is a false economy. We will continue to press ministers to review this policy.

Open Eye

The monthly bulletin of the Open University Community The Open University (OU) is the UK's only university dedicated to distance learning. More than two million people have studied a course with The Open University. For OU courses information, call 0845 300 6090; or see www.open.ac.uk/courses

Editor:Yvonne Cook
E-mail: open-eye@open.ac.uk
Address: OpenEye Communications, The Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA
Published with The Independent on the first Tuesday of every month. The next issue is out on 4 December 2007.

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