How Open University Works

The Open University is a UK public research institution and the world’s first distance-learning university. Founded in 1969 following a government push for a more accessible higher education, it has grown to become the largest academic institution in the UK, with over 170,000 students. It offers courses on a wide variety of subjects and degrees including bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate.

The OU is currently facing important challenges. Funding reforms in UK’s higher education have led to cuts in student aid, hikes in course fees, and drops in enrollments. The situation recently culminated in the resignation of the OU vice-chancellor, following a vote of no confidence from the OU staff. The vice-chancellor’s departure was precipitated by his controversial plans to lay off staff, cut courses, and scale down research.

So the OU’s future is uncertain. To overcome the challenges it faces, the OU may adopt measures that’ll change its approach to online teaching, perhaps drastically. But the purpose of this article isn’t to speculate about the OU’s future, but rather to present an account of the OU experience as I lived it, and for the sake of future students, as I hope it will remain.

OU undergraduate degrees can focus on either one or two complementary subjects. For example, you can pursue a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. But you may prefer a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Physics. If you decide to study two subjects, you’ll spend equal time on each.

But the OU also offers an alternative to regular undergraduate degrees called open degrees. Instead of focusing on one or two subjects, open degrees allow you to pick and choose any courses you like, to tailor your degree to your needs and interests. The only requirement is that courses be taken across different levels (usually four courses at level 1, four at level 2, and four at level 3).

But open degrees are a double-edged sword. If they offer more control to students, they can also be perceived as lacking focus — for example, if a student chooses courses that don’t complement each other. Moreover, employers are unlikely to know what open degrees are. This may not be an issue if you’re studying simply for the pleasure of learning, but if your goal is to improve your professional prospects, a regular degree is your safest option.

This is notably the case for courses that don’t lend themselves naturally to an online mode of delivery — for instance, because they require direct communication (such as a foreign language course) or access to special resources (such as a laboratory chemistry course). Rather than not offering those courses, the OU decided to add an on-campus component to them, requiring students to spend time at Milton Keynes, or at a partner institution, to attend classes, take part in practical activities, and collaborate.

This is also the case for doctoral students, who are usually required to live at a commutable distance from Milton Keynes to fully engage with the research environment and regularly meet with their doctoral advisors.

But these cases are the exception rather than the rule. The OU remains first and foremost a distance-learning institution.

Each tutor is in charge of a tutor group that usually comprises 30 students. Think of these students as your classmates: they’re all in the same course, follow the same schedule, and have the same tutor as you.

Tutors are experts in their course subject matter, and many combine their work as tutors with related positions in academia or industry. Some of my tutors were also lecturers in brick universities, some were engineers, some held PhDs, some were OU alumni, and some, several of the above. But regardless of their background, my tutors were unfailingly helpful and experienced. Now maybe I got lucky, but the OU prides itself on ranking high in the national student satisfaction survey conducted annually by the UK authorities, so I suspect my experience isn’t an outlier.

Shortly before the term begins, you’ll receive an email from your tutor where he welcomes you to the course and introduces himself. From there, how much contact you have with him is entirely up to you. My suggestion is to engage in meaningful exchanges with your tutors. Their support can be invaluable both during the course and beyond. Few distance-learning programs give you the chance to build meaningful relationships with instructors, so take full advantage of this opportunity.

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