The Open University was founded in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK in 1971 with the aim to give equal access to University-level education to everyone, regardless of age, academic background, and personal circumstances.
Through a system of home study courses, students can spread the academic load of a degree over any period, allowing work and family commitments to be met while studying. The University has been very successful both here and overseas, with over 200,000 students based in the UK and 26,000 in other countries, making it the biggest university in the UK.
Getting a Degree
There are a wide range of undergraduate courses, covering the usual academic fields available in traditional universities. Each course has a point value assigned to it, normally 30 or 60, which the student gains after passing. To get a bachelor's degree, 360 points have to be passed, but there is no time limit and many students take over five years to achieve this. Until recently, the only degrees available have been combined honours, in either sciences, social sciences, or arts. This was seen to be unfair to those students whose courses were all in one subject and who wanted a specialist qualification for further study, or for a career. As a result, named degrees have been introduced, but the requirements are more stringent. For example, to get an LL.B (Bachelor of Laws), 240 points of law courses must be studied, and the degree taken in five years or under.
Studying a Course
There are four elements to studying with the Open University: the study pack, tutorials, assessments, and examinations. Many of the courses also have a summer school which students attend for a week in order to use university facilities and equipment.
The Study Pack
In late January, a study pack is sent to each student containing textbooks, a study guide, and supplementary materials. The textbook(s) and study guide comprise the core of each course; both are divided into units of one week's study. The student works their way through the textbook which contains the bulk of the academic material to learn, using the study guide (which provides tips on learning the material, key points to from each unit, and so forth) to guide them.
Additional information comes from the supplementary materials, which may be audio tapes, videos, reference books, and experiment kits. Most courses are accompanied by television lectures, broadcast in the early hours on BBC2, which are of primary interest to students of 1970s fashion (many of the courses, particularly the mathematics and physics ones, still use lectures made in the '70s).
Each student is allocated a tutor for each course. They live locally to the student and are there to give academic support, answering any questions the student has by email or telephone. Every six weeks or so the tutor runs an evening or weekend tutorial for all his students, where they go over general problems with the course and give advice on handling the assessments. Tutorials are an important part of the OU experience; they are a social occasion allowing students to meet each other, and tutors often use them to clarify difficult and complex parts of the course. The discussions allow the tutors to see which areas of the course the students are having difficulty with, providing feedback for future improvements.
Almost all courses have a continuous assessment component, in the shape of TMAs and CMAs – Tutor Marked and Computer Marked Assessments. The TMAs are essay or problem questions which are set out in the study guide, typically eight in a 60-point course. They have to be completed and handed in to the tutor at various times; the tutor marks them returning a copy to the University and one to the student. This allows the student and tutor see where problems in understanding lie, though the marks also contribute to the student's final grade. CMAs are generally used in science courses and are multiple choice tests; the marks likewise contribute to the final grade.
In October, the students come to the end of the academic year and take their exams at a local university. Most courses have a single three-hour exam, which contributes 50% to the final grade, after which there is a two-month wait for the results in December or January.
Every summer thousands of OU students attend week-long summer schools at traditional universities around the UK. The foundation courses (designed to give a broad overview of a field, and introduce university learning to the students) all have summer schools where the students can get to know each other and attend lectures, seminars, and tutorials like a traditional university. More advanced courses, particularly in the sciences, have summer schools to allow students to use university equipment which would be unavailable otherwise. Summer schools are primarily a social event in any case, with discos, quiz nights, and other entertainments laid on for those attending.
Pros and Cons of Studying with the Open University
Studying with the OU appeals to a wide range of people. Those with work and family commitments find they can complete a degree part-time, with a flexibility they could never get with a traditional university.
Older students may find the wide range of ages at the OU more appealing than going to another university as a mature student. 70% of OU students work full-time; for them the financial burdens are much less than studying at another university would entail. There is no need for relocation, the courses are relatively inexpensive, and the workload (and therefore costs) can be spread over a longer period.
Many students don't aim to complete a degree at all. The Open University offers an excellent opportunity to those wishing to pursue studies in a field at a higher level than can be achieved by self-study or evening classes, but without committing to a full degree. The range of courses means people can follow their interests without being forced to cover topics which don't appeal to them.
The teaching quality is superb, regularly receiving the 'excellent' grade from the Quality Assurance Agency.
There are disadvantages though. Because there are so many tutors, and they are more widely distributed than a typical university staff, it is harder to ensure consistency between markers. The reaction of the OU has been to have strict mark schemes for TMAs and exams resulting in far less scope for independent research and ideas from the student.
The system of named degrees is not comprehensive as yet, and some students who have studied within a single field still find they are awarded a combined honours degree. Many employers will take this at face value and the graduate will be discriminated against as a result. Indeed, even with named degrees many employers do not understand what the OU involves and may be reluctant to accept it on an equal footing to traditional universities.
One thing the Open University cannot supply is a thriving student culture. Clubs and societies exist, and many students get together in informal study groups, but it doesn't match the atmosphere in a conventional university.
Along with that lack of social atmosphere is a lack of academic atmosphere. Unlike a traditional university, as an OU student your friends are not in the same boat as you. Discipline is required to complete TMAs while your friends are down the pub, or to revise for your exams when your colleagues are relaxed in post-holiday bliss
On balance, the OU provides a valuable addition to Higher Education in the UK, and although it cannot hope to be all things to all people, it does a good job at meeting its founding aim, to provide higher education for all.