Open View: The OU is ready to take on a wider role in national higher education provision

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The Independent Online

The Open University is often seen as the ultimate niche institution. It does what it does supremely well, but somehow outside the fence. Even when it comes top of the national student survey, as it did recently, commentators still regard the OU as playing in a league of one.

Yet over the years we have come to be a formidable presence across the system. We are not only much the largest university in terms of numbers, but the only one with a truly national presence. We invest far more in curriculum, learning software and learner support than any other single institution.

Our students appreciate this. We confer wide-ranging benefits on society and the economy. The question is whether this is enough. As UK higher education struggles with the challenges of widening participation, the skills agenda, the revolution in information technology and the demographic transition, could the resources of the OU be better used across the system?

In a pathbreaking experiment HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has just funded two projects designed to explore the national role of The Open University. It has awarded over £2m to support two sets of consortia exploiting OU curricula in the sciences, modern languages and key shortage subjects. And it is sharing in the funding of a joint post between HEFCE and the OU to develop ways in which the OU can provide infrastructural services to the sector as a whole.

The experiment demands that a new balance be struck between autonomy and collaboration. All UK universities, including the OU, are rightly jealous of their independence. HEFCE is acutely aware of its obligation not to favour any one institution, nor to exceed its powers of guidance and accountability. Yet we also know that all against all in higher education guarantees nothing except an expense of spirit and effort.

The regional agenda has been a response to this problem, and the OU is now taking part in 13 lifelong learning networks. Yet these ventures in turn threaten duplication and inconsistency in their response to urgent issues of access and progression. Alongside these projects, which will continue to expand, there is a case for examining whether there are solutions which can operate on a national basis.

HEFCE now wants to think through these possibilities with us. The likely model is not some imposed OU role, still less a monopoly right of provision. Rather it is the offer of services which institutions can draw down as they need them. We can maintain curriculum coverage more easily in times of falling recruitment, owing to our scale of operation; we can populate nationwide credit frameworks which encompass the whole ladder of learning, deliver advice and guidance consistently and at scale and deploy learning platforms to support sophisticated learner support systems.

It will require imagination and adaptability on the part of both the OU and the sector as a whole to make constructive and cost-effective use of this new form of collaboration. With HEFCE's investment we now have the means to commence this task.

Open Eye: The monthly bulletin of the Open University Community

The Open University (OU) is the UK's only university dedicated to distance learning. We have around 150,000 undergraduate and more than 30,000 postgraduate students and 14,000 staff members. More than two million people have studied a course with the Open University.

For OU courses information call 0870 333 4340 ; or see www.open.ac.uk/courses

Editorial team

Editor: Yvonne Cook

Assistant Editor: Peter Taylor-Whiffen

E-mail: open-eye@open.ac.uk

Address: Open Eye, 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 7 November 2006.

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