In recent years, Higher Education, like many other areas of the public sector, has been undergoing some fundamental changes. In many universities, reductions in public funding have been accompanied by an increasing marketisation/commercialisation of HE provision. Whilst the 'austerity' context in which universities now find themselves is externally driven, the way universities respond to it is not a foregone conclusion. In practice, the loss of public funding within the HE sector seems to have been accompanied by shifts towards a stereotypically 'corporate' model that narrowly focuses on competitiveness, income generation or efficiency savings and is underpinned by a new managerialism.
Within this context, it is important to think of what the alternatives for University provision might be. The Open University may have a particular role and responsibility to play within this context because of the way in which it has historically challenged existing hierarchies of higher education. It has been argued that 'The Open University was the first institution to break the insidious link between exclusivity and excellence' and that over its 46 years (i.e. 1969-2015) the OU has repeatedly achieved or helped others to achieve what seemed like the impossible. But it is also important to recognise the progressive nature and potential of the OU without succumbing to romanticism.
In his recently published The Open University: A history (MUP, 2014), Dan Weinbren has emphasised that, as the product of the post-war social democratic settlement, the OU reflects the contradictions of that settlement and many of the initiatives spawned by it. Thus, to paraphrase Dan, the OU has a tradition of being open to more people from working class backgrounds, with disabilities, and those unable to study full-time on a campus. There has been frequent promotion of idea that it contributes to a 'free, democratic and civilised society' (John Daniel, former VC). But it also has a tradition of central government, cost-focused, planning and influence dissemination. As Weinbren has put it, immanent within the OU were many of the ideas associated with the shift (experienced across higher education since the late 1980s) towards the quasi-market, the hollowed-out state and the linking of funding and transparent auditing.
The mission of The Open University
We promote educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.
Through academic research, pedagogic innovation and collaborative partnership we seek to be a world leader in the design, content and delivery of supported open learning.
These are the ideals on which the OU was ostensibly established. These are the values that underpin why many of our staff work here, despite the fact that achieving them is increasingly challenging.
Whilst we cannot escape the context in which we are now required to operate, we can advocate a redrawing of the parameters in which we respond to that context. Our origins and history suggests that the working culture of the OU is particularly conducive to developing new, and imaginative solutions that we can apply to the constraints and pressures the University and the wider HE sector is now under.
There are some pressing concerns that currently face The Open University that need urgent attention. For example, how do we:
- continue to deliver the high quality teaching that we want to deliver to students using the pedagogic methods we know work best;
- reach the students we are concerned with reaching and in general widen participation;
- maintain the aspects of our working model that we know give us the 'edge' in terms of student support and satisfaction;
- maintain and protect the working ethos of the OU?
Many within the OU are not averse to change; on the contrary, many welcome it and are excited to push against existing limits and boundaries. But it seems we are in a crucial moment where we must reflect carefully on what matters to us, what must be fought for and - importantly - how we can meet the demands of the current financial context without losing sight of the core principles of our mission and vision, and indeed extending and developing them.
Stuart Hall, Professor of Sociology at the OU (1979-1998), was an inspirational cultural theorist who consistently reminded us that it should be and is possible to combine utopian aspiration with strategic pragmatism. But, the complexity of doing so is not a task for a single individual. It is collective and collaborative work that requires a diverse range of knowledges, multiple voices and a common vision.
Since the end of 2014, several OU employees have begun to think about how to take this work forward, what the challenges are in doing so, how this might best be organised, and how to maximise participation in it – beyond Milton Keynes, beyond academics, beyond present staff and students. Crucially, how should we re-envision the OU in the marketised, commodified, instrumentalist world that is now UK Higher Education?
If you want to join a conversation about OU visions, email any of the authors of this article with ideas about how we can best get the conversation going. firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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