I was sorry to read about the difficulties facing the Open University today. The Mail splashed on the story, while the Times and the Sun have followed up. This is a story close to my heart because my father Michael Young was one of the founders of the OU. I told the story of how he came up with the idea for a ‘university of the air’ in an article for this magazine last year:
In 1961, shortly after getting a job as a lecturer at Cambridge, my father had an idea. The faculty buildings, he discovered, were largely unused for six months of the year. The colleges, too, were empty. Why not create two Cambridges, one for term time and one for the holidays? Unlike the Cambridge of dreaming spires and glittering prizes, the second would be for ordinary people who’d missed out on the chance of a university education — labourers, tradesmen, clerks, housewives. It wouldn’t be a place of privilege and over-indulgence, but of hard-working people eager to soak up knowledge. And instead of propping up the English class system, it would turn it on its head.
When he presented this proposal to the university authorities he was met with near universal derision. One don drew attention to his use of the word ‘campus’ to describe the university’s footprint — a ghastly Americanism that no self-respecting Cambridge man would ever use. It was as if some crazy, socialist idealist had suggested to the owners of a stately home that they let their servants sleep in their beds when they weren’t there.
But my father was a tenacious man. He quickly established that the redbrick universities were also empty for half the year and tried the idea out on them. He was expecting a warmer reception — after all, they knew what it was to be looked down on by the elite. But they turned out to be equally dismissive. Having acquired a soupçon of respectability, they weren’t about to jeopardise it by admitting any Tom, Dick or Harry. He reluctantly concluded that the only way to get his new venture off the ground was if it didn’t have a ‘campus’. Lectures would be broadcast on television and academics and students would communicate via mail. In 1963 he wrote an article in a magazine called Where? setting out his vision for a college based on these principles. He called it the ‘Open University’.
The reason it is in trouble is because the number of students enrolling at the OU has declined from 242,000 in 2011/12 to 173,927 in 2016/17, a fall of 28 per cent. According to the BBC, this has resulted in an annual deficit of around £20 million. Vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks announced plans to save £100 million from its annual budget of £420 million earlier this year, a proposal which prompted the OU’s academic staff to pass a vote of no confidence in him last week.
David Willetts, the minister responsible for the rise in tuition fees in 2012, has called for state subsidies for mature students, claiming that the current fees and loans system was designed for school leavers heading straight for university, not mature students already in employment. Eighty per cent of OU students work full or part-time, so are largely ineligible for financial support, and because their degrees are classified as ‘part-time’, even if they have a full course load, a majority are also ineligible for student loans. The average cost of tuition for an OU degree, which typically takes six years, is £18,000.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former advisor to Willetts, admits that raising the cap on part-time fees to £6,750 a year was a mistake because approximately two-thirds of part-time students aren’t eligible for tuition fee loans. “We didn’t understand how few part-time students would actually be entitled to those loans,” he told the Guardian last year.
I’m optimistic that the Government will find a solution to the OU’s difficulties, not least because the lifting of the tuition fee cap in 2012 has had a catastrophic effect on part-time university education in general. Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, the number of part-time students in England fell by 56 per cent. That sits very uncomfortably with a Government that is supposedly committed to adult learning.
The OU has provided a ladder of opportunity for more than two million people since it was founded in 1969 and become Europe’s largest university, exceeding my father’s wildest expectations. If this Government is serious about boosting social mobility, it must find a way of subsidising the cost of an OU degree as part of its review of post-18 education.