By Jon Marcus
Milton Keynes, England
THE FLAGSHIP CAMPUS of the largest university in Britain looks much like any other
school. Groups of faculty, deep in discussion, stroll across manicured grass quadrangles
between buildings of contrasting architectural styles. There are dining halls, a
busy library, athletic fields, tennis courts and bulletin boards announcing special
academic rates for magazine subscriptions. Exhaust pipes and chemical storage tanks
sprout from modern science buildings. There's no place to park.
||Open University tutor Dominic Newbold meets
with students taking an "Introduction to the Humanities" class. Tutors
are assigned to all Open University undergraduates.
Just one thing, really, sets this peaceful place apart from more conventional
university campuses: There aren't any students here. With the exception of a few
doctoral candidates, the 215,000 students of Britain's Open University study at home
or at work in one of the most successful models of distance education in the world.
Only faculty who develop the courses, and an army of administrators, occupy this
main campus in the sleepy town of Milton Keynes, about an hour north of London.
These days, there's a spring in the step of the people who traverse the quad at
Milton Keynes. Open University is branching out, aggressively expanding overseas
and working to reverse a recruitment slump at home, the fault in part of government
budget cuts tying funding to enrollment at a time of increased competition from established
schools that once derided the idea of distance education.
To meet this first goal of exporting its curriculum, OU is looking for university
partners all over the world, offering the proven concept it calls "supported
open learning," which marries correspondence courses with in-person human tutoring
and oversight. At the same time, to meet the second goal of beefing up recruitment,
the university appears to be relaxing those successful but demanding principles where
they have threatened to discourage students from enrolling. It is just a means of
meeting popular demand and treating students as consumers, OU administrators say
in their defense.
All of this puts Open University "right in the middle of the academic debate
about higher education," said Bob Masterton, director of the school's entrepreneurial
arm, Open University Worldwide. "The Open University is at a crossroads. It
has the opportunity to be a global player. The question is, does it have the will?
My answer is, yes, it should, and we should get on with it."
The Open University colossus now contriving to straddle the globe began in its
own small corner of the planet as a revolutionary notion: a means of offering a higher
education to the domestic masses in an era when the British university system was
particularly inbred and elitist. It was originally proposed by Harold Wilson, a member
of Parliament from the Labour party at the time, who raised the idea for the first
time in a speech in Glasgow in 1963. But its roots were in America, where Wilson
had come to lecture at the University of Chicago and where he first encountered the
televised courses of the Chicago College of the Air.
When Wilson became prime minister a few years later, he started pushing for a British
"University of the Air," despite resistance from political opponents and
the educational establishment. One MP, Ian Macleod, called it "blithering nonsense."
But Wilson responded by "out-snobbing the snobs," as his arts minister,
Jennie Lee, later put it.
||Walton Hall, once the family home of London
lawyer Sir Thomas Pinfold, now stands at the center of the British Open University
campus in Milton Keynes.
Open University would be "open as to people, open as to places, open as to
methods, open as to ideas," its mission statement said. There were, and still
are, no admission requirements. Formally established by royal charter in 1969, the
university had 40,000 applicants for 25,000 slots when it first began accepting students
two years later.
The university settled in at Milton Keynes -- midway between Birmingham and London
to the north and south, and between Oxford and Cambridge to the east and west --
which offered it the former family home and stud farm of a London lawyer named Sir
Thomas Pinfold; Pinfold's manor house, Walton Hall, still stands at the center of
the campus that has since sprung up around it.
Some of the early courses, broadcast on radio and black-and-white television,
were crude, and Open University was the butt of jokes; one radio comedy lampooned
a home-taught lawyer who, in court, could not pronounce the legal lingo. It also
was inevitably likened to the private fly-by-night correspondence schools that took
their students' money, sent them questionable course materials, and disappeared.
Nearly closed by the succeeding Conservative government, Open University was rescued
by, of all people, Margaret Thatcher, who was education secretary at the time --
albeit with drastic and recurring budget cuts. What appealed to Thatcher and the
Tories were the economic, not the social benefits: the relatively cheap cost of educating
students at a distance when compared to paying their tuition at conventional residential
Delivering teaching to the students proved cheaper than delivering students to
the teacher. Even today, it costs as little as half as much to educate a student
through Open University as at a traditional school in the United Kingdom, and one-tenth
the price of an American higher education.
Limited at first to undergraduates, Open University would quickly add continuing
and postgraduate education. Since 1971, it has taught 2.5 million students; of those,
230,000 have graduated, and 70,000 who took OU courses have gone on to receive degrees
from other British universities.
Open University is a major reason for the sharp increase in the number of people
taking college work in Great Britain. In 1970, only 14 percent of British 18- to
24-year-olds participated in some form of higher eduction. Today, the number has
increased to 45 percent.
It is a group that may not have had access to a higher education otherwise. Four
out of five beginning Open University undergraduates lack the minimum qualifications
required for admission to a conventional university. Half are children of blue-collar
workers, compared to one-fifth in British schools overall. More than 80 percent work
full-time while enrolled. The average age of undergraduates is 37, and half are women,
the highest proportion of any British university.
Students can choose from among 172 courses in the arts, social sciences, education,
health and social welfare, languages, management, mathematics and computing, science
and technology; just as at most full-time universities, the arts, humanities and
social sciences are most in demand. There are another 124 post-graduate courses.
||Walton Hall, once the family home of London
lawyer Sir Thomas Pinfold, now stands at the center of the British Open University
campus in Milton Keynes.
Half of a student's grade is based on homework assignments, half on the three-hour
end-of-course examination. Courses, which last nine months, equate to 30 or 60 points
toward the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) widely used in U.K. higher
education; students need a minimum of 360 CATS for a bachelor's degree and 180 for
a graduate degree. Although it is possible to receive a degree at Open University
in three years studying full-time, the average time is six years.
The cost of an undergraduate degree is between $6,000 and $7,000, cheaper than
almost any American four-year program, one-tenth the cost of many.
Unlike newer distance education programs, OU's beginnings in the days when high
technology was limited to broadcast television meant it could gradually adapt the
subsequent communications breakthroughs to its curriculum, rather than the other
way around. "You're not developing technology solutions and then finding problems
to apply them to," said Jerzy Grzeda, operations manager of the Knowledge Media
Institute, the university's research and development division.
Old-timers still talk of the drawn-out debate that delayed the move to broadcasting
classes in color because of concern for students who might not have had color television
sets. Courses today are built around a mix of correspondence texts, radio, television,
audio and video cassettes, computing and computer-mediated communication, and home
kits for practical work -- a tray of rock samples for a geology course, for instance.
Television programs associated with specific courses are broadcast early on Saturday
and Sunday mornings and on weekdays from 12:30 a.m. until 7 a.m., a block of time
known as The Learning Zone, when they can be videotaped for later viewing. (Some
students complain the university is actually too slow to adopt new technology. Course
assignments, for example, are still submitted, marked and returned on paper by regular
mail. Only about 30,000 of the 215,000 students are required to use computers as
an element of their courses.)
The instructional materials are developed by the university's 950 faculty members
in Milton Keynes, where there are also 3,350 administrators and support staff who
do everything from printing textbooks to processing assignments. A typical course
costs between $2.5 million and $3.3 million to produce, and takes three years; the
investment is amortized over the expected eight-year life of the course. Open University's
library of course materials has grown to tens of thousands of pages of text, plus
907 hours a year of television programming and 66 hours of radio. About a third of
the budget goes into course development. "Just putting lecture notes on the
Internet is a waste of time, because they need a human voice," said Blaine Price,
a member of the faculty. "We design our content to be read."
The process is, by all appearances, exhaustive, involving peer review and, typically,
three drafts of the materials before anything goes to the students. Take S-103: Level
I Science. First comes a fancy loose-leaf binder with an introduction, glossary and
study tips, additional articles from scientific journals and other sources, and a
wall map of the earth's surface. Open University has 70 graphic artists and illustrators
who design these materials -- an effort, administrators cheerfully acknowledge, to
reassure students that they're getting value for their money.
Next there are 11 thin custom softcover textbooks, one for each "block."
Block 2, Activity 8.5, for example, is called "An Element on the Move,"
and ties in with a sophisticated CD-ROM about the global carbon cycle featuring a
stylized depiction of the ecosystem. Students can learn about the atmosphere by clicking
on the sky, then move a carbon atom through various stages to the sea. They also
can change the proportion of elements to see what happens to the climate, visualize
molecules in three dimensions and take a virtual field trip to the Galapagos Islands.
The accompanying television program, Discovering Science, has proven so popular that
the BBC is running it on Friday nights in prime time -- opposite Top of the Pops
and Coronation Street, both top-rated shows.
The heart of Open University, however, and the apparent key to its success, is
not on TV or CD-ROM, or in Milton Keynes, for that matter. It is in places like Foxcombe
Hall in Boar's Hill near Oxford, once the ancestral home of the eighth earl of Berkeley
and now one of the OU's 13 regional centers. Here, in this genteel country manor
off a narrow road lined with hedgerows, are the people who recruit and counsel students
in this part of the country, and assign them some of Open University's 7,600 part-time
tutors. All registered students have tutors, who also are known as associate lecturers
and serve as subject specialists available to provide help and advice by telephone
and e-mail, and in person at periodic non-mandatory meetings, along with other local
students in a course.
This is the human element of Open University that distinguishes it from other
distance education programs, a relationship made famous by the movie "Educating
Rita" about a romance between an Open University student played by Julie Walters
and her tutor, played by Michael Caine.
The 13 regional offices are supplemented by a network of 301 study centers in the
U.K., and another 31 throughout the rest of Europe. Here recruiters review each "reservation
form," or application; since there are no admission requirements, students who
seem from their credentials unprepared for the level of a course they want to take
are encouraged to enroll in remedial programs called access courses, generally offered
by other colleges and local councils.
||Open University students work on their own
much of the time -- with materials that are mailed or sent electronically -- but
many choose to attend voluntary tutorials as well.
The Oxford regional office alone hosts 29 introductory meetings, seven "Welcome
to Open University" orientation sessions, study skills workshops for 1,300 people,
and test preparation classes. Each new student gets a phone call from an associate
adviser, and a follow-up call if they fail to submit their first assignment on time.
If that seems a far cry from the isolated image of a correspondence school, consider
this: Open University students in some courses also meet together for intensive instruction
at "residential schools" on weekends or for a week during the summer, often
in hotels or conference centers. Many form study groups with classmates in their
towns. There is a student association that organizes social gatherings, and there
are chemistry, geology, computer, sci-tech, space, football and art societies, and
a university newspaper full of opinionated letters to the editor. There are Open
University T-shirts, course newsletters and annual reunions. "You're not isolated
if you don't want to be," said Sally Eaton, 35, who postponed academics when
she got a good job designing embroidery, and now is an OU undergraduate majoring
For that matter, the first tutorial of B-600, "The Capable Manager,"
in a borrowed university classroom on a Saturday afternoon in London, is downright
giddy with camaraderie. "You're all sure you're in the right class? It's not
hang-gliding for beginners, or flower-arranging," jokes the tutor, Peter Guildford,
a personnel manager who serves here as combination drill sergeant and summer camp
"My mission as a tutor is to make sure you get through this, but you have
to do the work, not me. I want you to go away from here more confident," Guildford
tells the group, which includes a budget analyst, a prison officer, a legal aid attorney,
a self-employed computer analyst and a building contractor. He tells them how to
manage the sheaf of paperwork they had been sent from Milton Keynes, advises them
to use selective shortcuts, and warns ahead about the hard parts. "You will
find it is quite lonely studying by yourself," Guildford says. "If you
have problems, ring me up. But you can also ring each other up." A piece of
notebook paper quickly begins to circulate for telephone numbers and e-mail addresses.
No bashful freshmen, these. These students are here because they can't afford
the time or cost of a conventional education. "It fits in with my life,"
said one, Sandy Riggien, 29. "Flexibility was the absolute key," said another,
Iain Richards, 32. "I've got two kids. The flexibility it offers you is brilliant.
And the electives I wanted to do, the OU had them." Peter Osborne, 33, has already
gotten an undergraduate degree from Open University, and is working on a master's.
"Once you've started getting a mortgage and have a house, you can't take three
years off work to go and get a degree," he said.
OU's personal attention to its students is not altogether altruistic. That is
because, beginning in 1993, the British government dramatically revamped the way
it paid for higher education. Now all government funding is tied to enrollment, forcing
Open University and other schools to increase and maintain recruitment, and to find
new sources of revenue. (OU has an extra incentive for keeping its student numbers
up, because the more paying students enroll, the faster it recovers the high cost
of developing its courses.)
The shift in government policy had two important consequences for Open University.
First, the school eased some of the demands it used to place on students, removing
barriers that seemed to be dissuading them from signing up. And, second, it has stepped
up its expansion into new international markets as a means of earning money to supplant
lost government funding for its core activities -- a sort of Robin Hood approach
to subsidizing its domestic students.
In a way, the university had become a victim of its own success. Several government
studies on higher education held it up as an example, arguing that, given a choice
between an elitist free education system and a mass system with fees based on income,
the latter was preferred. One influential report by Sir Ron Dearing suggested that
traditional universities should, like Open University, invest more heavily in technology
that would allow part-time undergraduates to learn more cheaply at home.
These were flattering words. However, as for other universities, government funding
for OU fell from more than 80 percent to just over 50 percent of the $354 million
annual budget, and student fees rose faster than the rate of inflation, straining
the "school-for-the-masses" mission. Not only that, many other universities
took Dearing's suggestion and began to offer rival distance education courses. Open
University recruitment slowed and, this year, the number of undergraduates was down
In response, the university dropped the number of compulsory foundation courses
from two, to one, to none, as a means of maintaining now-crucial enrollments; students
today can enter at any level.
Not everyone is happy about these changes. "Open University, the shining
light of progressive education, is following the general trend toward fast-track
degrees in which support for individual students has been replaced by a complete
open-entry system in which students purchase whatever courses at whatever level they
wish," one OU tutor, Geoff Andrews, who also is a lecturer in politics at the
University of Hertfordshire, observed in The New Statesman.
Other tutors have expressed concern that counseling is being diminished and supplanted
by technology, even though it is the balance of self-study and tutoring that the
European Foundation for Management and Development found was the reason OU and other
British schools lead the world in distance education. Even Grzeda, whose job is to
develop new technology for learning, said, "The university needs to understand
that the secret weapon of the OU are the tutors, and there is no substitute for them.
You have to view the technology as a tool to augment tutoring. I'm glad the associate
lecturers are raising concerns. If the choice is between new technology and human
contact, I'll take human contact."
||Jerzy Grzeda manages the Knowledge Media Institute,
the Open University's research and development division.
Now residential summer school -- which some students had complained was too expensive,
cost them coveted vacation, and took them away from their families -- is being phased
out or made optional in several courses. "The sneaking suspicion is that the
OU is getting lukewarm over summer school not on education grounds, but on financial
ones," said John Kirkaldy, a tutor who believes the residential schools are
key not only to Open University's success, but to its charm. "Many years ago
I taught a retired naval captain who sat next to a wonderful lady who was one of
Britain's first female long-distance truck drivers," Kirkaldy said. "They
shared a common love of poetry, and the captain was also overwhelmed on meeting a
woman who could out-swear him."
Many students who have been to residential school, well, swear by it, said Pat
Atkins, regional adviser in the Oxford office. "Ninety percent of the people
I've talked to who have attended a residential course have said, ‘No, I didn't want
to go, but I loved it,'" she said. "And that's the sad thing, that we're
taking that opportunity away from them." (Derek Prior, a former lecturer who
now serves as the university spokesman, said in defense of the cutbacks, "It
would be impossible to deny the fact that you have targets that you have to meet,
Still, the material isn't easy and the students aren't dumb. Witness, for example,
the fact that Open University upset Oriel College, Oxford, in the championships of
University Challenge, a sort of College Bowl that attracts an average weekly audience
of 2.5 million viewers. The OU team was whittled down from more than 600 candidates
by the OU Student Association over the university's computer conferencing system.
It included a retired attorney and a part-time post office employee, and its average
age was 46 compared to an average age of 20 on the Oriel team.
Open University also fares surprisingly well in most comparisons with other schools,
including conventional British universities. The Daily Telegraph newspaper, using
government statistics, put Open University 11th out of 98 institutions in the proportion
of its departments rated "excellent," and Britain's Quality Assurance Agency
scored the engineering program higher than its counterparts at Oxford and Cambridge.
In a 1999 study, 95 percent of OU's Scottish students rated their course content
"good" or "excellent," compared with 78 percent of students at
other Scottish universities; 64 percent judged student support services "good"
or "excellent," compared to 17 percent for other universities.
In some areas, the school has done less well. The Higher Education Funding Council
for England found that course materials in subjects including computing and applied
social work were out of date, and parts of the university's primary teacher training
program were temporarily withdrawn after the program was threatened with cancellation
of its accreditation. Open University also suffers in another important measure:
25 to 30 percent of its students drop out, compared to 20 percent in other British
Changes in government policy actually have worked to Open University's advantage
in one way: They forced other schools to charge fees, creating a pool of prospects
who might not have otherwise considered distance education. Government figures show
that, since the introduction of tuition, students are abandoning full-time study
for part-time, and more students are beginning their studies late. Both trends favor
Open University. "Insofar as we're competing with the full-time student market,
we're now competing on equal terms, because they now have to pay fees as well,"
said Prior. Some even draw comparisons to the days when Open University was founded.
The only difference is that the obstacle to higher education for many students has
changed from elitism to economics.
On the income side, Open University has been rapidly developing new sources of
revenue. It began accepting students in Europe in 1992, and now has 8,000 in Western
Europe and 10,000 in Central and Eastern Europe and Africa; partnerships in Singapore,
Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates account for another 12,000 students, and there
are plans for additional growth in South Africa, India and the United States (see related article).
The university has licensed its course texts, audio-visual elements and other
materials worldwide through a commercial subsidiary called Open University Educational
Enterprises -- now OU Worldwide Ltd. -- and has made its staff available as consultants
to governments and institutions contemplating distance education projects of their
own. It has even issued an OU Visa card, and made a deal with an insurance company
to sell home, auto and travel insurance to students, alumni, staff and friends, with
a portion of each premium as a commission. "It's a business, but it's a business
in support of the university," said Keith Williams, director of academic development
for OU Worldwide. "We make surpluses, and they're all returned to the university."
In the vanguard of the university's expansion has been the Open University Business
School, whose students are generally reimbursed by their employers and therefore
can be charged much, much more. A graduate course in the humanities, for example,
typically costs about $1,080, while a course toward a master's degree in business
administration costs as much as $4,180. And there are 25,000 students in the OU Business
School, making it the biggest distance learning MBA provider in the world. More than
25 percent of U.K. MBAs come from the OU Business School. In fact, the British have
cornered the market in distance business education. British universities collectively
now have 140,000 overseas students via distance learning, most of them in business
courses, according to a report by Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies.
That is worth $400 million a year in revenues to Open University and other British
institutions, so much that the OU Business School won the 1997 Queen's Award for
The university has plowed much of its money into new technology, determined to hold
its lead as more and more competitors line up. It created the Knowledge Media Institute,
a laboratory for research and development in Milton Keynes that also does corporate
research with partners including Sun Microsystems, Apple and Andersen Consulting
that pay much of the operating costs in a model similar to that of the Media Lab
at MIT. It is spending more than $16 million developing new distance education media
including satellite broadcasting and more sophisticated CD-ROMs. It has hired more
than 40 new faculty with expertise in new technology since 1995. It has developed
virtual microscopes, CD-ROMs that can show images of rock samples at different angles
and degrees of magnification and polarization. It has run a "virtual summer
school," linking about a dozen psychology students in different countries with
guest lecturers by video conference. It is developing an "Internet Stadium"
capable of hosting up to 100,000 participants for mass events.
||Headquarters for the Open University's worldwide
activities is in Milton Keynes, 40 miles north of London. There, 950 faculty members
develop courses for the university’s 215,000 students.
All of which position OU at the forefront of the distance education market at
a time when governments are looking for alternatives to building huge new campuses,
and when students are being drawn to part-time higher education to save both time
The plan is to find universities in other countries that will collaborate with
Open University, helping adapt the course materials to different languages and cultures
and, not coincidentally, giving it quick access to new markets at low cost while
making potential competitors into partners. This is what already has been done in
Eastern Europe, where Open University joined with five existing schools to cooperatively
offer courses. In Hong Kong, OU licensed course material to the Open Learning Institute,
since renamed the Open University of Hong Kong, and still provides more than a third
of the curriculum.
"What we're effectively doing is building clones of ourselves," OU Worldwide's
Masterton said as a group of Eastern Europeans tutors on a training visit strolled
through the commissary on the Milton Keynes campus. "What's in it for us is
licensing income from a lot of different sources. Also what's in it for us is that
we in effect become a joint partner."
This benefits both sides, according to Masterton. "We in effect are a turnkey
university for governments that can't afford to build new," he said. "In
many countries, distance learning is the only means by which to solve the problem."
Jon Marcus is a senior editor at Boston Magazine and covers U.S. higher education
for the Times of London.