For those of us to who worked and believed in the OU, the news of its financial difficulties in the THE last week (OU posts £7M loss) made wretched reading. But the financial and recruitment issues are only part of the OU’s current problems, with a graduation rate now apparently down to only 13%
In a Brookings e-newsletter last month Ben Wildavesky, Director of Higher Education Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York, wrote an article entitled ‘The Open University at 45: What can we learn from Britain’s distance education pioneer?’ Professor Wildavesky identified a number of critical OU innovations, but the one he picked out as ‘the OU’s biggest accomplishment’ was ‘Combining scale with personalization’. He noted that ‘for many students… this personal relationship with an instructor is the key’.
But the university appears to be continuing with the policies of the previous Vice Chancellor Martin Bean which are eroding that personalisation. The new policy of placing tutors in groups may mean that it’s likely that students will have less face-to-face time with their own tutor; increasing tuition group sizes (up to 100 students in one tutor group is possible) will also make it harder for students to have a individual relationship with their tutors. And the new OU ‘Student Support Teams’ can never be personal in the way Professor Wildavesky means.
In addition older OU colleagues will remember that the OU had a role called a ‘Tutor-counsellor’, whose job was to support students throughout all their modules to graduation. This was abolished on the grounds of both financial cost, and a finding that only about 10% of students had the same T-c throughout their study careers – largely because of staff changes. But both these arguments were fallacious: the cost argument because no-one looked into the financial benefits of increased student retention, and the continuity argument, because for that vital switch from first to second module (where most OU dropout now occurs), some 90% of students kept their T-c.
The OU Vice-Chancellor recently noted in his newsletter that student retention was not improving yet. Sadly – and I hope I’m wrong – further depersonalisation of the OU will only make things worse.