I’ve been distance learning on a part-time basis with the Open University for a few years now and have been recommending it to anyone that will listen. I became hooked after signing up for a random course a few years ago – I enrolled on the excellent “Fossils and the History of Life” course in 2007.
I continued picking random courses until I discovered Astronomy – and since then I’ve been concentrating on astrophysics.
The courses and materials are interesting, varied and engaging. I have really enjoyed my experience so far: studying has been a pleasure, not a chore. I have also written a guide to studying with the Open University.
I am working towards a B.Sc. in Natural Sciences, but that is almost irrelevant. Studying is a hobby for me. I’m not doing it for a career change or to get degree; I’m doing it because I enjoy learning. Reading about physics is how I relax. Yes, I’m weird.
Though the recent huge student fees increases alarmed me, they didn’t affect me. I’m one of those lucky people that graduated years ago when it was free. Sorry.
So, I was stunned to see an Open University press release with the following title:
The Open University announces new fees of £5,000 in England.
As far as I can tell, there are no changes planned for Scotland. And it appears that Wales and Northern Ireland are still to make a decision.
Getting a degree from the OU works on a points system. You take modules that are worth a certain number of points and you need 360 points in total, at varying levels of difficulty, to be awarded an honours degree. 120 points is about the same as one year full-time at a traditional university. See my “guide to studying with the Open University” for more details.
The announcement stated that a 60 point module would cost £2500 from September 2012. Right now that same module costs £700 – i.e. it will cost 3.5 times more from September 2012. [Edit: fixed my percentage mistake!]
I’ve come to a conclusion about what is going on after an interesting conversation with several people on Google+ – yes, Google+ turned out to be a useful tool for this sort of thing. In particular, fellow Pod Delusion contributor Alex Foster added a comment that was enlightening: at a council meeting to discuss student fees the OU representative was hugely in favour of the new student finance system as, for the first time, it was open to part time students.
So, after discovering this, I have a theory:
- The OU, like all universities, was received funding from the government. This funding is being cut. And the OU needs to replace this money.
- OU part time students can now get student loans to pay course fees. (Note: there are some prerequisites. See below)
- Traditional universities are announcing fees of £9000 per year.
- The Open University has announced fees of £5000 per year. That’s a huge saving.
I conclude that the Open University is trying to poach full-time students from “traditional brick universities.” And coupled with the fact that part-time students can now apply for loans, it means that people who are looking for a career change can apply for a loan and enrol with the Open University.
To be honest, I must admit, that it makes perfect financial sense. If an 18 year old is facing the prospect of a £27,000 loan to cover fees for a 3 year degree, then a £15,000 loan for an Open University degree sounds far more attractive. Of course, they won’t be able to bask in the glory of being away from parents for the first time, but is that worth 12 grand?
Actually, perhaps it is. But that’s not the point!
So, what’s the problem?
Basically, the Open University is closing the door to people who were already scared away from a traditional university education because of the cost. These people include both 18 year olds leaving school and people in “dead-end jobs” who want to better themselves. A lot of people who currently educate themselves with the Open University would balk at taking out a £15,000 loan to do so.
The Open University is also saying good bye to people like me. I can’t envisage people enrolling on a £2500 course just for fun.
It’s closing the door on people that are looking for a hobby after retiring – especially if you have a degree from 40 years previous as you then don’t qualify for a student loan.
Let’s look at the numbers [PDF] from 2009-10:
- The Open University has over 250,000 students.
- In the 2009–10, over 70% of students were in full-time or part-time employment.
- So, I’d suggest that, at most, 30% (i.e. 75,000) studied full time with the OU.
70% (175,000 students) were in full-time or part-time employment. I obviously don’t know how many of those people are studying for fun, or studying for a career change. However, I would suggest that the Open University is undergoing a massive change in direction.
The students that currently make up 70% of the total are not the target audience that the Open University wants in the future. They want full-time undergraduates – they want a part of the 18-21 year old market.
I’ve used the word “market” whilst discussion education! It’s depressing writing about this in business and financial terms, but here are more numbers from 2009-2010 [PDF]:
|Funding body grants||244.0|
|Tuition fees and education contracts||156.7|
|Research grants and contracts||17.0|
|Endowment and investment income||3.3|
The total expenditure for the same period was £424.6 million.
The key amounts in the above table are grants and fees. The Open University receives more from grants than it does from fees. Our £700 60-point courses have been heavily subsidised. I don’t know the income breakdown that the Open University expects in 2012-2013, but I assume that they have crunched some data and come to the conclusion that the books will not add up unless they do something radical.
If you are already studying with the OU, you’re safe. Yes, I must apologise again – the fee increase doesn’t affect me. Current students just have to finish their degrees by 2017 and have to take at least one course every year.
If you are thinking of studying with the OU for fun, be quick! If you start now, you should be able to finish a degree by 2017. But please check the OU’s official position on fees (http://www8.open.ac.uk/study/explained/fees-2012) to make sure you qualify for the cheaper prices.
The exact rules are:
you will start a module that counts towards your qualification between 1 September 2012 and 31 August 2013
you have completed a module which began between 1 September 2010 and 31 August 2011 OR you’re studying a module that starts between 1 September 2011 and 31 August 2012
But after 2012, I can’t see anyone studying with Open University just for the love of learning.
And that’s sad news.
Prerequisites to apply for a student loan to pay for OU course fees
Not everyone can apply for the loans. The minimum requirements are:
- You take courses worth at least 30 points each year.
- you do not already have a degree.
The Open University Student Budget Account
Due to the huge fee increases, you could take advantage of The Open University Student Budget Account - a way of borrowing course fees direct from the OU. The courses will still cost £2500 for 60 points, but you could spread the cost with the OUSBA.
e-Petition: Stop the cuts in the Open University.
The registration fees have been announced: I assume the Open University isn’t expecting many applicants from England…
Since the cost increase, I’ve been on the lookout for free ways to learn. Here is what I have found: Learning for Free: a collection of free education resources.
I recorded a version of the above for episode 94 of the Pod Delusion – a podcast about interesting things.