The Open University (OU) is a public distance learning and research university, and one of the biggest universities in the UK for undergraduate education. The majority of the OU's undergraduate students are based throughout the United Kingdom and principally study off-campus; many of its courses (both undergraduate and postgraduate) can also be studied anywhere in the world. There are also a number of full-time postgraduate research students based on the 48-hectare university campus where they use the OU facilities for research, as well as more than 1000 members of academic and research staff and over 2500 administrative, operational and support staff. The OU was established in 1969 and the first students enrolled in January 1971. The University administration is based at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, in Buckinghamshire, but has administration centres in other parts of the United Kingdom. It also has a presence in other European countries. The university awards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, as well as non-degree qualifications such as diplomas and certificates or continuing education units.
With more than 174,000 students enrolled, including around 31% of new undergraduates aged under 25 and more than 7,400 overseas students, it is the largest academic institution in the United Kingdom (and one of the largest in Europe) by student number, and qualifies as one of the world's largest universities. Since it was founded, more than 2 million students have studied its courses. It was rated top university in England and Wales for student satisfaction in the 2005, 2006 and 2012 United Kingdom government national student satisfaction survey, and second in the 2007 survey. Out of 132 universities and colleges, the OU was ranked 43rd (second quartile) in the Times Higher Education Table of Excellence in 2008, between the University of Reading and University of the Arts London; it was rated highly in Design, Art History, English, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Computer Science, Development Studies, Social Policy and Social Work and Sociology. It was ranked overall as a nationally top forty, and globally top five hundred university by the Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2011, as well as being ranked 247 for citations of its academics.
The Open University is also one of only three United Kingdom higher education institutions to gain accreditation in the United States of America by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an institutional accrediting agency, recognized by the United States Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
The Open University was founded by the Labour government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson was a strong advocate, using the vision of Michael Young. Planning commenced in 1965 under Minister of State for Education Jennie Lee, who established a model for the OU as one of widening access to the highest standards of scholarship in higher education, and set up a planning committee consisting of university vice-chancellors, educationalists and television broadcasters, chaired by Sir Peter Venables. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Assistant Director of Engineering at the time James Redmond, had obtained most of his qualifications at night school, and his natural enthusiasm for the project did much to overcome the technical difficulties of using television to broadcast teaching programmes.
Wilson envisioned The Open University as a major marker in the Labour Party's commitment to modernising British society. He believed that it would help build a more competitive economy while also promoting greater equality of opportunity and social mobility. The planned utilisation of television and radio to broadcast its courses was also supposed to link The Open University to the technological revolution underway, which Wilson saw as a major ally of his modernization schemes. However, from the start Lee encountered widespread scepticism and even opposition from within and without the Labour Party, including senior officials in the DES; her departmental head Anthony Crosland; the Treasury; Ministerial colleagues, such as Richard Crossman; and commercial broadcasters. The Open University was realized due to Lee's unflagging determination and tenacity in 1965–67, the steadfast support from Wilson, and the fact that the anticipated costs, as reported to Lee and Wilson by Arnold Goodman, seemed very modest. By the time the actual, much higher costs became apparent, it was too late to scrap the fledgling open university.
The majority of staff are part-time Associate Lecturers and, as of the 2009–10 academic year, almost 8,000 work for the OU. There are also 1,286 (mostly full-time) salaried academic employees (central academics based at Walton Hall and Staff Tutors based in a variety of regional locations) who are research active and responsible for the production and presentation of teaching materials, 1,931 who are academic-related and 1,902 support staff (including secretaries and technicians). Salaries are the OU's main cost - over £275 million for the 2009–2010 academic year. In 2010 the OU became one of the Sunday Times′ Best Places to Work in the Public Sector.
Open University Employees Credit Union Limited is a savings and loans co-operative established by the University for staff in 1994. A member of the Association of British Credit Unions Limited, it is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the PRA. Ultimately, like the banks and building societies, members’ savings are protected against business failure by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
The University has Faculties of Arts & Social Sciences; The Open University Business School (OUBS); The Open University Law School; Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM); Wellbeing, Education & Language Studies; Institute of Education Technology (IET); Knowledge Media Institute (KMI).
In 1982 the OU announced the establishment of a business school supported by the Foundation for Management Education and the British Institute of Management. In 1983 the Open University Business School was founded with 1,600 students enrolled onto the first two courses – The Effective Manager and Personnel Selection and Interviewing.
The Open University Business school is accredited by the international accrediting bodies AACSB, AMBA, amd EQUIS. It is the only triple-accredited business school that specialises in flexible learning, and nearly 24,000 students have graduated with MBAs in over 100 countries.
The OU Business School's MBA programme was ranked 13th in the Financial Times’s global rankings of online and distance learning MBA providers which featured five European schools, four of which were in the UK.
The OU uses a variety of methods for teaching, including written and audio materials, the Internet, disc-based software and television programmes on DVD. Course-based television broadcasts by the BBC, which started on 3 January 1971, ceased on 15 December 2006. Materials comprise originally authored work by in-house and external academic contributors, and from third-party materials licensed for use by OU students. For most modules, students are supported by tutors ("Associate Lecturers") who provide feedback on their work and are generally available to them at face-to-face tutorials, by telephone, and/or on the Internet. A number of short courses worth ten credits are now available that do not have an assigned tutor but offer an online conferencing service (Internet Forum) where help and advice is offered through conferencing "Moderators".
Some modules have mandatory day schools. These are day-long sessions which a student must attend in order to pass the module. One example of such a module is the K301 – Advanced Certificate in Health Promotion – which has two mandatory day schools/workshops, focusing on communication skills, counselling and practical issues, related to health promotion. Nevertheless, it is possible to be excused on the basis of ill-health (or other extenuating circumstances) and many courses have no mandatory face-to-face component.
Similarly, many modules have traditionally offered week-long summer schools offering an opportunity for students to remove themselves from the general distractions of their life and focus on their study for a short time.
Over the past ten years the university has adopted a policy of separating residential modules from distance-full-time taught modules. Exemption from attendance at residential schools, always as an Alternative Learning Experience (ALE), is sometimes available for disabled students and others who find it impossible to attend in person (See "Qualifications-Undergraduate" section.)
For many years the OU produced television and radio programmes aimed at bringing learning to a wider audience. In its early years most of these were in the form of documentaries or filmed lectures. Latterly, most OU-associated programming was mainstream and broadcast in peak hours, including series such as Rough Science and "Battle of the Geeks", while older-style programming was carried in the BBC Learning Zone. In 2004 the OU announced it was to stop its late-night programmes on BBC2, and the last programme was broadcast at 5.30am on 16 December 2006. The OU now plans to focus on semi-academic television programmes, such as many now broadcast on BBC Four.
Teaching at the OU has been rated as "excellent" by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The English national survey of student satisfaction has twice put the Open University in first place.
In October 2006 the OU joined the Open educational resources movement with the launch of OpenLearn. A growing selection of current and past distance learning course materials will be released for free access, including downloadable versions for educators to modify (under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence), plus free collaborative learning-support tools.
The OU is researching the use of virtual worlds in teaching and learning, and has two main islands in Second Life. These islands are called Open University island and OUtopia village. They are separated by a third region "OU Ocean." In May 2009 these regions formed the basis of a case study by Linden Lab, the company which owns Second Life.
As of mid-2010, the university led the list of contributing universities in the number of downloads of its material from the educational resources site iTunes U, with downloads of over 20 million. Open University continues to adopt Moodle as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) with their own team deploying custom plugins.
Since 2013, the OU has set up a MOOC platform called FutureLearn which is now the UK's largest provider of free online courses.
Open University modules are often assessed using an equal weighting of examinations and coursework. The coursework component normally takes the form of between two and seven tutor marked assignments (TMAs) and, occasionally, may also include up to six multiple-choice or "missing word" 10-question interactive computer marked assignments (iCMAs). The examinable component is usually an invigilated three-hour paper regardless of the size of the module (although on some modules it can be up to three three-hour papers), but an increasing number of modules instead have an EMA (End of Module Assessment) which is similar to a TMA, in that it is completed at home, but is regarded as an exam for grading purposes.
Modules results are sometimes issued on a graded basis, consisting of pass grades 1 (threshold 85%, a distinction), 2 (70–84%), 3 (55–69%) & 4 (40–54%), and fail (below 40%). This grade is calculated as the lower of the overall continuous assessment score (OCAS) and overall examination score (OES).
These grades can be weighted according to their level, and combined to calculate the classification of a degree. An undergraduate degree will weight level 3 modules twice as much as level 2, and in postgraduate programmes all M level modules are equally weighted.
Open University modules have associated with them a number of Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) credits – usually 30 or 60 – depending on the quantity of the material in the module and a level (1, 2, 3, or 4) corresponding to the complexity, with 120 credits roughly equating to the year of study for a full-time student.
The OU offers a large number of undergraduate qualifications, including certificates, diplomas, and bachelor's degrees, based on both level and quantity of study. An OU undergraduate degree requires 300 (or 360 for honours) CATS credits.
Students are generally advised not to undertake more than 60 credits per year, meaning that an undergraduate degree will take typically six years to complete. With the exception of some degrees in fast moving areas (such as computing) there is generally no limit on the time which a student may take. Students need special permission to take more than 120 credits (equivalent to full-time study) at any time; such permission is not usually granted.
Originally the BA was the only undergraduate degree, and it was unnamed. The modern OU grants degrees of Bachelor of Arts (BA), Science (BSc), Laws (LLB) and Engineering (BEng); the BA and BSc may be named (following a specified syllabus) or unnamed (constructed of courses chosen by the student) degrees.
Many OU faculties have now introduced short modules worth ten credits. Most of these modules are taught online, and start at regular intervals throughout the year. They typically provide an introduction to a broader subject over a period of ten weeks, these are generally timed during vacations at conventional universities in order to take advantage of their facilities. Some science modules, which require only home study, are complemented by residential courses, in order to allow the student to gain practical laboratory experience in that field; typically, an award of degree or diploma will require completion of both.
Different modules are run at different times of the year, but, typically, a 30 or 60 credit module will run either from October to June or from February to October. Assessment is by both continual assessment (with, normally, between four and eight assignments during the year) and, for most, a final examination or, on some modules, a major assignment.
As well as degrees in named subject, the Open University also grants "Open" Bachelor's degrees where the syllabus is designed by the students by combining any number of Open University modules up to 300 credits for an Open degree and 360 credits for an Open honours degree – the main restriction on which courses can be included is that there must be at least 60 at level 3 for the "ordinary degree" and 120 at level 3 for honours and in both cases no more than 120 at level 1. The Open degree may be awarded as a Bachelor of Arts Open or a Bachelor of Science Open either with or without honours. Without honours, at least 150 credits at level 1 and above and 60 credits at level 2 and above are required in the field, either art or science, for the Open degree to carry that name. For a degree with honours, no more than 120 credits at level 1, 120 credits at level 2 and above and 120 credits at level 3 and above are required.
The Open University grants undergraduate Certificates (abbreviated Cert) typically awarded after 60 completed credits at Level 1 or Level 3 (where each credit corresponds to roughly 10 hours of study, therefore 60 credits represent about 600 hours of effort), Diplomas (abbreviated Dip) after 120 credits – typically 60 credits at Level 2 and 60 credits at Level 3. Open University also awards Foundation degrees (abbreviated FD).
The Open University provides the opportunity to study for a PhD on a part-time distance, or a full-time on-site basis in a wide range of disciplines as well as an EdD for professionals in education. The university also offers a range of Master's levels modules such as the MBA and MPA, MSc, MA and MEd, and MRes, as well as the professional PGCE qualification and a number of postgraduate diplomas and certificates including innovative practice-based modules and postgraduate computing qualifications for professionals. Postgraduate certificates are awarded for 60 credits of study on specified modules; postgraduate diplomas are awarded for 120 credits of study on specified modules. The university offers "Advanced Diplomas" that involve 60 credits at undergraduate level and 60 credits at postgraduate level – these are designed as "bridges" between undergraduate and postgraduate study.
Unlike most United Kingdom universities, degree ceremonies at the Open University are not graduation ceremonies as such (the occasion on which degrees are formally conferred on those who have achieved substantive degrees) - although honours degrees are normally conferred on these occasions. The Open University degree ceremony is officially known as a "Presentation of Graduates" at which those who have already had a degree bestowed on them are presented to the University Chancellor or his/her representative. Open University graduates normally graduate in absentia at a joint meeting of the university's Council and Senate ("congregation") which takes place at a meeting entirely separate from the degree ceremony.
The university's degree ceremonies occur throughout the year at various prestigious auditorium venues located throughout the United Kingdom, plus one each in Ireland and Continental Western Europe. In the year 2010 the OU held 26 degree ceremonies including Dublin, Manchester, Glasgow, Ely and Versailles. These ceremonies are presided over by a senior academic at Pro-Vice-Chancellor level or higher, and have the normal formal rituals associated with a graduation ceremony, including academic dress, procession and university mace.
In year 2000, the Open University was the first to host an online "virtual" graduation ceremony in the United Kingdom together with an audience at the OU's campus in Milton Keynes. Twenty-six students in eight countries, from the United States of America to Hong Kong, were presented for their master's degrees in the online graduation, including, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Tim Berners-Lee one of the founders of the World Wide Web on whom was conferred an honorary doctorate.
Like other UK universities, the OU actively engages in research. The OU's Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute has become particularly well known to the public through its involvement in space missions. In October 2006, the Cassini-Huygens mission including 15 people from the OU received the 2006 "Laurels for Team Achievement Award" from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). Cassini-Huygens' successful completion of its seven-year, two billion-mile journey in January 2005 to Saturn ended with Huygens landing farther away from Earth than any previous probe or craft in the history of space exploration. The first instrument to touch Saturn's moon Titan was the Surface Science Package containing nine sensors to investigate the physical properties of Titan's surface. It was built by a team at the OU led by Professor John Zarnecki.
The OU now employs over 500 people engaged in research in over 25 areas, and there are over 1,200 research students. It spends approximately £20 million each year on research, around £6 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the remainder from external funders.
In the 2009–10 academic year, there were 253,075 enrolled students, plus an additional 2,273 customers who bought course materials but did not enrol on a course to receive academic credits. The majority of students in the 2009–10 academic year were aged between 25 and 44 years old, with the median age of new undergraduates being 31. Most students were from England (166,936), while 15,744 were from Scotland, 8,443 from Wales, 4,225 from Northern Ireland and 12,127 from elsewhere in the European Union, plus others elsewhere. 61% of undergraduates were female, with even numbers among those taking postgraduate modules.
While most of those studying are mature students, an increasingly large proportion of new undergraduates are aged between 17 and 25, to the extent that the OU now has more students in this age range than any other UK university. The reduction in financial support for those attending traditional universities, coupled with the use of technologies such as iTunes and YouTube that appeal to this demographic, is believed to be behind this growth.
By 2011, 32,000 undergraduates were under 25 years old, representing around 25% of new students. In 2010, 29,000 undergraduates were in this age range. In the 2003–2004 academic year around 20% of new undergraduates were under 25, up from 12.5% in 1996–1997 (the year before top-up fees were announced). In 2010 approximately 55% of those under 25 were also in full-time employment.
The OU works with some schools to introduce A-Level students to OU study and in 2009–10 3% of undergraduates were under 18 years old.
The OU's youngest graduate so far is a 15-year-old boy from Wales who gained a BSc First Class Honours in 2014.
Unlike other universities, where students register for a programme, OU students register separately for individual modules (which may be 10, 15, 20, 30 or 60 CATS credits, equivalent to 5, 7.5, 10, 15 or 30 ECTS credits). These modules may then be linked into degree programmes.
During the 2009–10 academic year social studies was the most popular study area (with 16,381 full-time equivalent students), followed by biological and physical sciences (12,357) and historical and philosophical studies (8,686); student numbers even on smaller undergraduate programmes, such as creative arts and design are still significant (2,528) as are postgraduate registrations on programmes such as mass communications and documentation (123 full-time equivalent students).
The most popular module during 2009–10 was DD101 An introduction to the social sciences (7,512 students), followed by AA100 The Arts Past and Present, B120 An Introduction to Business Studies, K101 An Introduction to Health and Social Care and Y163 Starting with Psychology.
61,787 students received financial assistance towards their study in 2009–10 and the typical cost for United Kingdom-based students of a Bachelor's honours degree at the OU was between £3,780 and £5,130. From September 2012 the Government reduced its funding for all students residing in England. English students pay higher fees than those living the rest of the United Kingdom. The average cost of one full-time year or 120 credits rose to £5,000, bringing the cost of an average Bachelor's honours degree for an English student to £15,000. (European Union and international students pay more as the university does not receive government funding for them). After government support, the second most important revenue stream to the Open University is academic fees paid by the students, which totalled about £157 million in 2009–10.
The university enrolled fewer than 50,000 students in the 1970–71 academic year, but it quickly exceeded that number by 1974–75. By 1987–88 yearly enrollment had doubled to 100,000 students, passing 200,000 by 2001–02 and 250,000 in 2009–10.
Cumulatively, by the end of 2009–10 the OU had educated more than 1.5 million students and awarded 819,564 qualifications after successful assessment.
In addition, the Open University provides certification for qualifications at Ruskin College in Oxford and Richmond, the American International University in London, a private liberal arts institution. (Until 2008, it provided the same service for the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland).
The Open University Students Association is the equivalent of a students' union for the Open University, and is a registered charity wholly funded by the Open University (OU). The Association is governed by a Board of Trustees and a Central Executive Committee. Each student registered with the OU automatically becomes part of the Students Association unless they elect to formally opt out. It offers opportunities to meet up, volunteer, find information and access services to support learning.
The OU has over two million alumni, including:
The Open University has been featured in many film and television programmes. The plot of Educating Rita surrounds the working class character aiming to "improve" herself by studying English literature. She attends private tutorials run by alcoholic lecturer Frank.
Television characters have also followed OU courses. These include Anne Bryce in the BBC sit-com Ever Decreasing Circles, Yvonne Sparrow in Goodnight Sweetheart and Bulman, in the ITV spin-off from the series Strangers. Sheila Grant (Sue Johnston) was accused of having an affair with her tutor in Brookside. Onslow, a character from Keeping up Appearances, watches Open University programming on television from time to time.
In autumn 2006, Lenny Henry was a star in Slings and Arrows, a one-off BBC television drama which he also wrote, about someone who falls in love while on an OU English Literature course. (Henry has himself completed an OU degree in English.)