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Author: James Miller

The Open University already crosses borders

Updated Tuesday, 18th February 2014
As a UK-wide institution, The Open University will have to adapt however the independence vote goes. But the university is already adpet at dealing with a mix of governments - and will be able to adapt, says the OU's director in Scotland.

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Students using computers The OU already finds its way to students wherever they are In the run up to the Scottish referendum, one of The Open University's unique features has attracted attention from commentators both within Scotland as well as much further afield. The Open University is the only university that operates across all four nations of the UK, and as such, we are increasingly facing two common questions: What is the OU's position with respect to the referendum? – and - How will The Open University in Scotland manage to operate in the event of a yes vote? The answers to these two issues are of course inextricably linked.

It often comes as a surprise to even the most politically aware individuals that The OU has already demonstrated its ability to adapt to the demands of different governments, whilst presenting a seamless, high quality service to its students. In a post-devolution world -  a world where higher education has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales since 1999 -  The Open University has had to meet the policy requirements of four different governments and the expectations of three different funding bodies within the UK.

One of the biggest challenges The Open University has faced was managing the consequences of the Westminster Government's decision to remove the teaching grant in England, thereby increasing university fees for students in England. This policy decision heralded the introduction of four different fee regimes for OU students based on their location within the UK,. As a result, an OU student in England now pays a different fee for the same course delivered to an OU student in Wales.

More recently, the difference in course fees for an OU student in England compared with those for an OU student in Scotland has became more apparent given the Scottish Government's decision to extend free higher education to more part-time students. Although when grant funding is taken into account universities' total teaching income per funded student is much closer across the UK.

Fully aware that the introduction of different fees was likely to lead to loud cries of 'not fair', The Open University carefully managed its communications so our students understood the introduction of different fees flowed directly from the funding arrangements for students of different governments rather than an arbitrary decision made by The OU.

During this same period, The Open University implemented a series of internal changes to ensure OU students in England could access a loan from the Student Loans Company to cover their fees, while maintaining 'normal service' to all students wherever they were located.

The Open University was built on a model of open supported learning to deliver quality higher education over a broad curriculum spectrum at scale which has allowed it to operate across national boundaries. It is worth noting that not only does The OU successfully operate across all four UK nations, it also delivers higher education in areas outside of the UK, including the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Europe. By necessity, it has had to have enough flexibility to adapt quickly to external changes and adjust to different environments.

It is this flexibility that will allow The OU to operate within any constitutional settlement in Scotland.

We recognise that even in the event of a 'no' vote, constitutional arrangements are unlikely to stand still and that the Scottish Parliament can expect to see more powers devolved to it in the near future. We are undoubtedly living in exciting times and, while The Open University has adopted a neutral position in relation to the referendum and will work with the democratic will of the people in Scotland, as a learning provider, we are actively encouraging people to become involved in the debate.

Through our OpenLearn site we have published a series of freely available on-line resources, The Politics of Devolution, which provide a background to the referendum and an outline of the crucial issues under debate. In addition, later this year, we hope to launch more on-line interactive resources to inform the public discussion and encourage more people to become actively involved in the debate.

The Open University is the leading provider of part-time higher education in Scotland with over 15,000 students. Its mission is to widen access to high quality university-level education through providing flexible learning through an open supported learning model with the support of over 500 tutors across Scotland. It has achieved this so successfully that satisfaction for the past eight years The Open University in Scotland has been voted top for overall by our students via the National Student Survey.

Whatever the outcome of the Independence Referendum in September, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that none of the above changes.

Scotland's Future logo

This article is part of the Scotland's Future collection, exploring the debate and national identity as the country prepares to vote on independence.

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