Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


Memorandum 57

Submission from the Open University

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Open University welcomes this inquiry into Students and Universities and believes this is an optimum time for the Committee to be exploring these relevant issues.

2.  The Open University is, in effect, the UK's only national university and as such plays a significant role in higher education, not just because of the scale of its operation but because of the way in which it enables people with diverse educational backgrounds to participate in higher education.

3.  The Open University would be pleased to supply further evidence, orally or in writing, on any of the issues identified in this response.

SUMMARY

  3.  In this submission the Open University has outlined its position in respect of the following issues:

    — The Open University believes that government targets for participation will not be achievable without increasing the scale of part-time and flexible provision, and reviewing the support available to the part-time HE sector

    — The Open University believes that removing the boundary between part-time and full-time and introducing a formal Credit Accumulation and Transfer system, would help to reduce non-completion rates in HE

    — The Open University believes that government should review the whole ELQ policy and in the meantime should immediately offer exemption from the policy to all those who are in receipt of benefits.

    — The Open University believes that government should undertake a fundamental root and branch review of university financing that sets us down the road of creating a single, unitary system of funding for higher education and lifelong learning.

    — The Open University welcomes the fact that HEFCE has earmarked £5.7 million of funding for the period up to 2011 for open educational pilots, but believes that more investment and commitment will be required to ensure the good work done at the Open University, and elsewhere, is built on, and to help ensure UK HEIs are well positioned to compete in the global market for students.

ADMISSIONS

The UK's ability to meet government targets for higher education participation and the relevance of these targets

  4.  The Open University believes that government targets for participation will not be achievable without increasing the scale of part-time and flexible provision.

5.  It is widely recognised that current targets cannot be met simply by activity at the point of Higher Education (HE) admission.

6.  Aimhigher is now focusing on earlier stages of young people's school careers, particularly from age 14, but also at primary school level. And there is increasing evidence (eg the Gorard report)[193] that children's life outcomes are determined very early in life and that parents are the biggest single influence on these. So widening participation policies for HE need to be joined up with other aspects of the government's social exclusion agenda. And they need to build a culture of learning within families, encouraging the educational aspirations of parents as well as young people.

  7.  In addition, as the government has recently recognized, targets for participation in higher education should not focus exclusively on young people. The Leitch report has demonstrated that if we are to aspire to be a high skills economy we must give greater encouragement to lifelong learning and to workforce development.

  8.  The Open University agrees with the findings of Prof. Christine King[194] that flexible delivery would help the growth in participation:

    "Flexible delivery on campus, in the workplace, at a University Centre, in an FE college in cyberspace or in a combination of these is beneficial for both current and future full- and 'part-time' students and would encourage

growth in participation and greater employer engagement."

The implementation and success of widening participation initiatives such as Compact Agreements, and the impact of the current funding regime on these objectives

  9.  The Open University is not involved in Compact Agreements, but sees partnerships with intermediary organisations as critical to its work in recruiting and supporting mature "Widening Participation" students. These include national partnerships eg with the Workers Education Association (WEA), Unionlearn, Unison and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). They are designed to enable those in work to progress in their chosen careers.

10.  The Open University also has locally based partnerships with organisations which have objectives which are complementary in tackling social exclusion, community and voluntary sector groups, children's centres, extended schools and regeneration organisations in the areas of highest deprivation.

  11.  These local partnerships are resource intensive, but can be very effective at targeting potential students in lower socio-economic groups. There has been a steady increase in the Open University's recruitment of students from these groups[195] from 13.8% of new undergraduate students in 2004-5 to 15.8% in 2008-9 (latest figure).

  12. HEFCE's proposals in its recent consultation on changes to the funding method "The future support for teaching enhancement and widening participation", to increase the weighting of widening access premium for students from the lowest quintile is a much more accurate recognition of the high level of resource required to recruit students from the most disadvantaged areas. But the consultation also contains proposals to take funding away from retention activities and put it into widening participation activities. It seems counterproductive to reduce the funding available to support those students most in need of support as well as the support given to those HEIs most engaged in this work.

STUDENT SUPPORT AND ENGAGEMENT

The effectiveness of initiatives to support student engagement in the formulation of HE policy, and how the success or otherwise of these initiatives is being assessed

  13.  The Open University does not believe there is strong evidence to suggest that initiatives to support student engagement in the formulation of HE policy have been effective and would like to see more evidence that such initiatives are being assessed.

Strategies to reduce non-completion of HE programmes by part-time students

14.  The Open University has submitted a proposal to HEFCE which aims to increase the level of collaboration between HEIs. The "Shared Returns" project, a part of our "National Role" initiative, seeks to help non-completing students return to HE.

15.  The Open University believes that, using its regionally based information, advice and guidance service, it can combine with other universities and with UCAS to offer students who are at risk of dropping out support and advice on the options open to them for continuing their studies. The Open University estimates that between 10 and 15% of non-completing students could be retained within the sector as a result of this programme. The written off cost to higher education of the withdrawal of a student is estimated at around £4,000, not including the fee paid by the student whilst the cost of retaining a student through this scheme is estimated at approximately £500.

16.  The Shared Returns project will impact particularly strongly on students brought to HE through widening participation initiatives since these are disproportionately represented in the number of non-completing students. And vulnerable students will be supported at a time when they would otherwise drop out of HE by finding institutions better placed to meet their specific needs.

  17.  In a separate initiative, The Open University has been developing a generic model for analysing the learning experience of its own students, identifying strengths and gaps in provision and targeting proactive and reactive support at key points in the student learning journey. This has a number of stages:

    — tracking the experience and progress of students using quantitative and qualitative data, insights into the student experience, and reported problems

    — identifying areas of risk—key points or issues which impact on completion

    — development of an action plan which identifies areas for improvement.

  18.  This approach was used within the Open University to develop a Learner Support Framework which aims to concentrate advice and services around 10 key activity areas in order to develop a coherent and holistic model of student support.

  19.  A key element has been the combination of reactive and proactive elements and evidence has been gathered which indicates that initiating personal contact, usually by telephone, at a number of stages in a course improves retention on an individual courses module and re-registration for a further module.

Reasons for non-completion of higher education programmes by students

  20.  The Open University believes that removing the boundary between part-time and full-time HE and thus making it easier for students to move between different intensities and patterns of study in line with their changing circumstances would help to reduce non-completion rates in HE.

21.  The Open University also agrees with Prof Ramsden's suggestion[196] that a system of credit based funding should be introduced in place of degree based funding as a necessary reform to effect the flexibility in the funding system which is now required.

  22.  The Open University believes that a formal Credit Accumulation and Transfer system, which could be built on existing practices for accreditation of prior and experiential learning would encourage more students to complete their studies, because they could vary the intensity and/or place of study.

the adequacy of UK higher education (HE) funding and student support packages, and implications for current and future levels of student debt

  23.  A significant proportion of part-time HE students incur debts, despite the fact that most (83%)[197] are in employment. The low level of financial support available to part-time students is a likely contributor to this situation.

24.  At a time when the boundaries between full- and part-time study are rapidly breaking down, the Open University believes that the funding and student support packages available to part-time HE students should be enhanced to bring them more into line with the support available to full-time students. With four out of ten HE students officially classed as part-time the disparity between the support made available to full-time and part-time students needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

  25.  In a policy briefing issued in 2006 UniversitiesUK highlighted the financial challenges faced by part-time students;

    "All the evidence indicates that the majority of part-time students pay their own fees up-front or through a series of instalments. Fee levels (together with the availability of financial support for fees for poorer students) are therefore the major factor in determining the future demand for part-time higher education provision in the UK".[198]

    "Government should re-examine public support for part-time students, including eligibility criteria. A high proportion of part-time students do not gain any benefit from the public support packages potentially available to them, and these packages often do not meet the overall costs of being a part-time student…"[199]

  26.  In 2007 the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee also questioned the distinction between full-time and part-time students:

    "As participation in higher education has increased, so the nature of the student body has changed. Forty per cent of students are defined as studying part time. Full time students, however, work on average 14 hours a week in paid employment, and 20% work more than 20 hours a week. It is hard to see how someone employed for 20 hours or more each week can be defined as a full time student; yet those students have access to the full range of student support denied to others defined as part time."[200]

    "The distinction between part time and full time students for the purpose of fee and income support is now so blurred as to be no longer sustainable. We recommend that the Government reviews as a matter of urgency the current arrangements for fee support payable to institutions for part time students and the availability of support for part time students themselves. For the future, we believe that students should be seen as one group with a variety of needs for support rather than being arbitrarily divided into categories of part time and full time."[201]

  27.  The Open University believes that HEFCE's decision to phase out funding for most students in England studying for an HE qualification, equivalent to, or lower than, a qualification they already have (an ELQ) will make HEIs more reluctant to offer courses to such students as the HEIs will not receive any finance from HEFCE to cover the cost of educating these students. And those ELQ students who do choose to study may incur far greater debts than they otherwise would do.

  28.  The Open University believes that many more prospective students will be affected by the ELQ decision than HEFCE originally envisaged when they announced the policy. And whilst HEFCE cannot have predicted that the UK economy would be entering a recession when they devised the policy this is not a good time to be withdrawing support for many thousands of prospective students, many of whom may be unemployed or at risk of redundancy and looking to prepare for new jobs in often new industries.

  29.  The Open University believes that government should not only review the whole ELQ policy but should immediately offer exemption from the policy to all those who are in receipt of benefits.

  30.  Finally, The Open University trusts that the government will honour the undertaking it gave during the passage of the HE Bill in 2004 to review in 2009 not only the impact of variable fees on full-time students but also the system of financing part-time study. Part-time providers have not been able to increase their undergraduate fees to the levels now being charged by full-time providers because part-time students do not have access to the publicly-subsidised financial support arrangements that make these fees affordable to full-time students. Consequently, The Open University has received no benefit from the extra resource flowing into other parts of the HE sector, even though it is subject to the same cost pressures and investment needs as other universities. We urgently need a fundamental root and branch review of university financing that sets us down the road of creating a single, unitary system of funding for higher education and lifelong learning.

any further action required by the Government and/or HEFCE to ensure that UK HEIs offer students a world class educational experience

  31.  The Open University recognizes that government, HEIs and HEFCE have to work in partnership in order to offer students a world class educational experience. Student expectation levels are greater than they have ever been and with greater participation comes greater student diversity. As Prof Ramsden pointed out;[202]

    "A greater variety of types of students has inevitably increased the range of expectations—students with caring responsibilities, students who are less well prepared academically, less able, or less independent as learners, students living at home, students working significant hours off-campus in paying jobs, students with a disability, students learning in the workplace, international students whose first language is not English, and so on."

  32.  The Open University believes that government and HEFCE policy and decision making should be carried out following proper consultation with the HE sector and that there should be greater recognition of the diversity within the HE sector when formulating policy and making decisions.

  33.  Developing innovative teaching methods, especially those which utilize the latest technical advances, requires sufficient financial commitment. The Open University welcomes the fact that HEFCE has already allocated funding for open educational pilots, with monies earmarked until 2011, but believes that more investment and commitment will be required to ensure the good work done at the Open University and elsewhere is built on, and to help ensure UK HEIs are well positioned to compete in the global market for students.

  34.  The Open University is currently pioneering the use of open access course materials[203] and is ideally placed to become a national centre for open access learning. But creating such a centre would require long term financial investment to overcome obstacles such as intellectual property rights issues.

  35.  The Open University has submitted a proposal to HEFCE which aims to increase the level of collaboration between HEIs in this regard. The SCORE project—creating a Support Centre for Open Resources in Education—forms part of our wider "National Role" initiative. The Open University believes that given adequate support from HEFCE, it can promote and lead a collaboration between institutions in the development of educational resources and services that will not only enhance teaching quality and the learning experience but also drive down the cost of course development in participating institutions. It will also enhance the international brand of the UK higher education sector. To do this, the Open University plans to establish a national centre, SCORE to identify and promote good practice and effective strategies across the sector. SCORE will draw on aspects of the CETL model. It will run programmes of workshops and events across the country which will build understanding of OERs and their benefits to teaching within higher education.

January 2009






193   "Overcoming the Barriers to Higher Education" 2007 by Stephen Gorard, Nick Adnett, Helen May, Kim Slack, Emma Smith, Liz Thomas. Trentham Books Ltd. Back

194   "Part-Time Study in Higher Education" (para 32 p6). Prof. Christine King, Vice Chancellor & Chief Executive, Staffordshire University Sept 2008. Report commissioned by John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as a contribution to his review of the future of the HE sector.
http://www.dius.gov.uk/policy/documents/part_time_studies_and_he_131008.pdf Back

195   Defined as those who have no higher education and live in the 25% most deprived super output areas as defined by the index of multiple deprivation. Back

196   The Future of Higher Education Teaching and the Student Experience, Prof. Paul Ramsden, para 3.7 page 11
http://www.dius.gov.uk/policy/documents/teaching_and_student_experience_131008.pdf Back

197   Callender, C et al. (2006) Part-time research strand 3: A survey of students' attitudes and experiences of part-time study and its costs. Back

198   UniversitiesUK (2006) Policy briefing. Part-time students in higher education-supporting higher level skills and lifelong learning (section 3.12) Back

199   UniversitiesUK (2006) Policy briefing. Part-time students in higher education-supporting higher level skills and lifelong learning (conclusions p10) Back

200   House of Commons Education and Skills Committee; The future sustainability of the higher education sector: international aspects. Eighth Report of Session 2006-07 (para 32 p14). http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmeduski/285/285i.pdf Back

201   House of Commons Education and Skills Committee; The future sustainability of the higher education sector: international aspects. Eighth Report of Session 2006-07 (para 34 p15) http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmeduski/285/285i.pdf Back

202   The Future of Higher Education Teaching and the Student Experience, Paul Ramsden, para 1.6 page 3 http://www.dius.gov.uk/policy/documents/teaching_and_student_experience_131008.pdf Back

203   The OU's OpenLearn materials were accesses 1.7 million times in 18 months-overwhelmingly by users outside the UK. Back


 
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