'Today, Rita could have signed up to Open University on Facebook'

The Open University's famous fictional student wouldn't recognise the video-conferencing, social networking, flexible insitution it's grown into.

When Willy Russell first wrote Educating Rita, the award-winning play that centres on the relationship between an Open University student and her tutor, he set the entire action in the latter's office. The celebrated Liverpool playwright would have to rethink the drama, were he to contemplate a revival depicting a 2012 student, rather than one from the era of the original 1980 script.

"I seem to remember it all taking place in the somewhat dishevelled office of the tutor," says the OU's vice-chancellor Martin Bean. "Rita, though, could well have signed up through Facebook if she were studying today."

Instead of spending hours in the company of her tutor, she could still – in fact – have more one-to-one contact both with him or be contacting fellow students through her Twitter feed.

She need never know whether he has an alcohol problem as Frank, the character depicted by Michael Caine in the film, undoubtedly had.

"She could say: 'I'm doing DD101 (the course number) – is there anybody out there just starting who wants to get in contact?" says Mr Bean. "There is much greater opportunity for student-to-student contact. There are things that we don't want to talk to our tutors about because showing a lack of confidence is something we should avoid as students.

"Face-to-face tutorials have been replaced by video conferencing," adds Niall Sclater, director of teaching, learning and quality.

As a result of all the online contact, Rita would also be less likely to opt to go to one of the OU's infamous summer schools. Research has shown today's OU students prefer not to.

"About a third of them were quite keen to network with other people via their Facebook," says Mr Sclater.

"About a third aren't bothered and a third said 'Over my dead body' (would they use Facebook)."

In the past, almost all students would have opted for more face-to-face study opportunities – not just because the summer schools were notorious for new relationships developing between the mature students attending them (not all of them illicit!).

Back to Rita, though. Rather than enrolling in person, as happened in the film, she might well have made her decision to sign up after watching the BBC's recent Sir David Attenborough series, Frozen Planet, one of the most successful joint ventures between the OU and the BBC during the past few years. During every episode, viewers were told they could sign up for a study course to learn more about the topic.

"Millions of people watched it and enjoyed it," says Mr Bean. "About 270,000 responded to the call for action, 160,000 of them ordered posters and 614 of them signed up for a course." It was one of the most successful recruiting drives launched through TV – a medium that still showcases between 20 or 25 programmes a year devised with the OU. Next year it is planning to launch a blockbuster course on the history of Wales through a BBC4 production.

No longer, though, is it a case of recording rather dry curriculum material at 1am. Today it is a question of tapping into people's enthusiasm for topics through a more dramatised production. The approach appears to be successful as, contrary to what is happening elsewhere in higher education as the day of the £9,000-a-year tuition fee approaches, OU recruitment is a major success story. The number of students reached 250,00 last year.

Now it has increased again and stands at 260,000. That is a four per cent rise in applications at a time when courses at traditional universities are suffering falls of up to 20 per cent per course as a result of the impending fee rises next September. The overall average reduction in applications from UK candidates is 8.7 per cent.

The biggest rise for the OU has been among the younger age group – a trend that academics believe is certain to continue. "We have more and more 18- to 19-year-olds actually making their first choice of study the OU," says Christina Lloyd, director of teaching and learning at the OU. Figures show course reservations for 2011/12 by 18- to 25-year-olds have increased by 18 per cent on the previous year (16,129 compared to 13,359).

The fastest growing group of new students was among 18- to 19-year-olds – whose numbers shot up by 30 per cent from 1,226 to 1,611.

It is not difficult to identify some of the reasons for this. The cost of an OU course is £5,000 for a full year of study, compared with an average of more than £8,200 a year for a traditional residential university course. Suddenly, from appearing more expensive to a potential student than a traditional university, it now offers not only a cheaper study option, but one that enables the student to juggle their study around any work or family commitments they might have. All this means a slight change of focus among OU students. Most are now studying in order to better their career prospects rather than for fun and stimulation as they approach retirement at the end of their careers. The rest of the higher-education system is likely to try and catch up with the OU as it realises how much of a market share there may be in tapping the distance-learning market.

Earning through learning seems an ever more popular option – whether it be through distance learning or opting for an apprenticeship along the lines offered by management consultants KPMG, which has promised to pay the fees for students who sign up with it to study at Durham University and work at the firm during student breaks. The whole pattern of university study is changing, with the Coalition Government's higher-education reforms – and changing in the OU's favour. At present, it is ahead of the game.

So it should be – not only because of its history, but because in Mr Bean it has a vice-chancellor who was not recruited through the traditional world of academia. He came from a job as Microsoft's general manager in the USA and is thus well versed in the requirements of the student in the modern digital age. As for Rita, she would no longer have to come face-to-face with the snobbery of some of the academics she encountered in the Oxford social set that she was introduced to in the film. Her path to a degree might, as a result, be a bit smoother than that of the character portrayed by Julie Walters.

It would, however, be quite a challenge for the modern day equivalent of Willy Russell to make such an enchanting and moving film of the saga.

Perhaps, after all the online contact between her and her tutor, they could arrange to meet up and...?

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