The advert (with its ‘excellent package’) in the 18th September THE for the successor to Martin Bean, the Open University’s Vice Chancellor, may not be a bad time to review the record of the UK’s most important distance university. There can be little doubt about its achievements over the nearly 45 years since it opened. As a teacher and researcher in the institution for forty of those years I’ve often come across many people who have found new lives and careers through their studies.
And yet… When the OU started in 1971 the graduation rate for that first cohort of students was 59%. Not as good as the roughly 80% for conventional UK universities, but not bad for an institution described by a then senior Conservative politician as ‘blithering nonsense’. But since then the rate has been on an apparent remorseless decline – to 52% for 1976 entry, to 48% for 1981 entry, to 22% for 1997 entry (HEFCE data). I understand that it may now be as low as 14% for 2001 entry (The historic nature of the data is because it can take up to 11 years for the substantial majority of students in a cohort to graduate).
If this 14% graduation figure for 2001 entry is correct then it raises a number of serious questions. Why for instance is it so much lower than the average 80% graduation rate for UK full-time students? Some would argue that it is the OU’s policy of open entry but this would probably only make a difference of 3-4% points. Others would argue that many OU students are only interested in studying one or two particular modules or gaining intermediate qualifications. That must be true although I’m unaware of evidence to support this happening on large enough a scale to alter the graduation rate to nearly a sixth of the full time rate. And the same argument could be applied to UK part-time students at conventional UK universities, who nevertheless have a graduation rate of 39%.
The cost of an initial 60 credit point OU module (300 credit points are needed to graduate) is now around £2500, a substantial sum to invest each year with only a 20% or less chance of eventually graduating and gaining a benefit from that investment. Is there a ‘distance education deficit’ at the OU that the new Vice Chancellor will urgently need to address?