The Open University (commonly Open University or OU, but officially the is part of its name) is the UK's distance learning government-supported university notable for having an open entry policy, i.e. students' previous academic achievements are not taken into account for entry to most undergraduate courses. It was established in 1969 and the first students enrolled in January 1971. The majority of students are based in the UK, but its courses can be studied anywhere in the world. The administration is based at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, but has regional centres in each of its thirteen regions around the UK. It also has offices in other European countries. The university awards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, as well as non-degree qualifications such as diplomas and certificates, or continuing education units.
With more than 180,000 students enrolled, including more than 25,000 students studying overseas, it is the largest academic institution in the UK by student number, and qualifies as one of the world's largest universities. Since it was founded, more than 3 million students have studied its courses. It was rated top University in England and Wales for student satisfaction in the 2005 and 2006 UK government national student satisfaction survey, and second in the 2007 survey.
The OU aims to provide a university education for those wishing to pursue higher education on a part-time or distance learning basis, including disabled people, who are officially a priority group within the University. The British Government asked the Open University to continue the work of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) when it was dissolved. The CNAA formerly awarded degrees at the polytechnics which have since become universities.
Walter Perry (later Lord Perry) was appointed the OU's first vice-chancellor in January 1969. The election of the new Conservative government of Edward Heath in 1970 led to budget cuts under Chancellor of the Exchequer Iain Macleod (who had earlier called the idea of an Open University "blithering nonsense"). However the OU accepted its first 25,000 students in 1971, adopting a radical open admissions policy. At the time, the total "traditional" university population in the UK was around 130,000.
Since its foundation, the OU has inspired the creation of many similar institutions around the world.
People from all walks of life and all ages take advantage of the OU; for most courses there are no entry requirements other than the ability to study at an appropriate level, though most postgraduate courses require evidence of previous study or equivalent life experience.
Approximately 70 percent of students are in full-time employment, often working towards a first (or additional) degree or qualification to progress or change their career, with over 50,000 being sponsored by their employer. The University is also popular with those who cannot physically attend a traditional university because they are disabled, abroad, in prison, serving in the armed forces, or looking after family members. About 10,000 OU students have disabilities.
While most of those studying are mature students, the reduction in financial support for those attending traditional universities has also led to an influx of young undergraduates to the OU. In the 2003–2004 academic year, around 20 percent of undergraduates were under 25 years old, up from 12.5 percent in 1996–1997 (the year before top-up fees were announced). The OU works with some schools to introduce A Level students to OU study.
Unlike other universities, where students register for a programme, at the OU students register separately for individual modules (which may be 10, 15, 20, 30 or 60 CATS points, equivalent to 5, 7.5, 10, 15, or 30 ECTS credits), and are known as 'courses' in the OU context. These courses may then be linked into degree programmes.
The university enrolled less than 50 000 students in the 1970-1971 academic year, but it quickly exceeded that number by 1974-1975, and by 1987-1988 yearly enrollment doubled to 100 000 students, reaching 200 000 by 2001-2002; cumulativelly, the university has educated more than two million students, 675 000 of which studied enough courses to achieve a qualification after successful assessment. As of the 2006-2007 academic year, there are 224 276 students and 6184 customers (who just buy the course materials but do not enroll to the course to receive academic credits). Most students come from England (148 395), while a few are from Scotland, Ireland, and the rest of the European Union. The majority of students (14 577) choose to undertake social studies and biological and physical sciences (11 910), as well as historical and philosophical studies; the least popular academic fields in The Open University are mass communications and documentation (187 students) and creative arts and design (545 students). The most popular course for the 2006-2007 academic year was DD100 An introduction to the social sciences (more than seven thousand students studied it only in one academic year), followed by A103 An introduction to the humanities, K100 Understanding health and social care, M150 Data, computing and information, and DSE212 Exploring psychology (a bit less than four thousand students). Most undergraduate students are female, while males are slightly more than females in postgraduate courses, and the majority of the students are in between 25 and 44 years old, the median age of new undergraduates being 32. 37 852 students receive financial help, and the typical cost for UK students of a Bachelor's honours degree at the OU is between 3150 and 4225 GBP (EU and international students pay more as the university does not receive government funding for them). After government support, the second most important revenue stream to The Open University are academic fees paid by the students, which in one academic year (2006-2007) total about 123 million GBP.
Salaries are the main cost in The Open University's balance sheets, claiming over 225 million GBP for only one academic year (2006-2007).
Some courses have mandatory day schools. These are day-long sessions which a student must attend in order to pass the course. One example of such a course is the K301 - Advanced Certificate in Health Promotion - which has two mandatory day schools/workshops, focusing on communication skills, counselling and practical issues related to health promotion. Nevertheless, it is possible to seek excusal upon the basis of ill-health (or other extenuating circumstances), and many courses have no mandatory face-to-face component.
Similarly, many courses have traditionally offered week long summer schools offering an opportunity for students to remove themselves from the general distractions of their life and focus on their study for a short time.
Over the past ten years the university has adopted a policy of separating residential courses from distance-taught courses. Exemption from attendance at residential schools, always as an Alternative Learning Experience (ALE), is sometimes available for disabled students and others who find it impossible to attend in person (See "Qualifications-Undergraduate" section.)
The OU now produces mainstream television and radio programming aimed at bringing learning to a wider audience. Most of this programming, including series such as Rough Science and "Battle of the Geeks", are broadcast at peak times, while older programming is carried in the BBC Learning Zone. But in 2004 the OU announced it was to stop its late night programmes on BBC2, and the last such programme was broadcast at 5.30am on 16 December 2006. The OU now plans to focus on mainstream programmes.
Teaching at the OU has been rated as "excellent by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The English national survey of student satisfaction has twice put the Open University in first place.
In October 2006 the OU joined the Open educational resources movement with the launch of OpenLearn. A growing selection of current and past distance learning course materials will be released for free access, including downloadable versions for educators to modify (under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence), plus free collaborative learning-support tools.
The OU is researching the use of Second Life in teaching and learning, and has 2 islands in the virtual world. These islands are called CETLMent and Schomebase. CETLMent is on the main grid and is used by tutors for specific exercises with groups of students. Schomebase is on the teen grid and is used for exploring new teaching methods for school
The Open University offers courses that are generally assessed using an equal weighting of examinations and coursework. The coursework component normally takes the form of between two and six tutor marked assignments (TMAs) and, occasionally, may also include up to six multiple-choice or "missing word" 100-question computer marked assignments (CMAs). The examinable component is usually a proctored three hour paper regardless of the course size (although on some courses it can be up to three three-hour papers), but may also be an ECA (End of Course Assessment) which is similar to a TMA, in that it is completed at home, but is regarded as an exam for grading purposes. Course results are issued on a graded basis, consisting of pass grades 1 (threshold 85%,a distinction), 2 (70-84%), 3 (55-69%) & 4 (40-54%), and fail (below 40%). This grade is calculated as the lower of the overall continuous assessment score (OCAS) and overall examination score (OES).
These grades can be weighted according to their level, and combined to calculate the classification of a degree. An undergraduate degree will weight level 3 courses twice as much as level 2, and in postgraduate programmes all M level courses are equally weighted.
Open university courses have associated with them a number of Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) points - usually 30 or 60 - depending on the quantity of the material in the course and a level (1, 2, 3, or 4) corresponding to the complexity, with 120 points roughly equating to the year of study for a full time student.
The OU offers a large number of undergraduate qualifications, including certificates, diplomas, and Bachelors degrees, based on both level and quantity of study. An OU undergraduate degree requires 300 (or 360 for honours) CATS points.
Students generally do not undertake more than 60 points per year, meaning that an undergraduate degree will take typically six years to complete. With the exception of some degrees in fast moving areas (such as computing) there is generally no limit on the time which a student may take. Students need special permission to take more than 120 points (equivalent to full-time study) at any time; such permission is not usually granted.
Originally BA was the only undergraduate degree, and it was unnamed. The modern OU grants both BA and BSc undergraduate degrees, and they may be named (following a specified syllabus) or unnamed (constructed of courses chosen by the student).
Many OU faculties have now introduced short courses worth ten points. Most of these courses are taught online, and start at regular intervals throughout the year. They typically provide an introduction to a broader subject over a period of ten weeks, these are generally timed during vacations at conventional universities in order to take advantage of their facilities. Some science courses, which require only home study, are complemented by residential courses, in order to allow the student to gain practical laboratory experience in that field; typically, an award of degree or diploma will require completion of both.
Different courses are run at different times of the year, but, typically, a 30 or 60 point course will run from February through to October. Assessment is by both continual assessment (with, normally, between four and eight assignments during the year) and, for most, a final examination or on some courses a major assignment.
As well as degrees in named subject, the Open University also grants "open" Bachelor degrees where the syllabus is designed by the students by combining any number of Open University courses up to 360 credits for an open honours degree - the main restriction on which courses can be included is that there must be at least 120 at level 3 and no more than 120 at level 1.
The Open University grants undergraduate Certificates (abbreviated Cert) typically awarded after 60 completed credits at Level 1 (where each credit corresponds to roughly 10 hours of study, therefore 60 credits represent about 600 hours of effort), Diplomas (abbreviated Dip) after 120 credits - typically 60 points at Level 2 and 60 points at Level 3, ordinary Bachelor degrees (abbreviated BA, BSc, etc) after 300 credits, and Bachelor degrees with honours, (abbreviated BA (Hons), BSc (Hons), etc) after 360 credits. Open University also awards Foundation degrees (abbreviated FdA, FdSc, etc).
Although the majority of students at the Business School are in the UK, many of the courses are also available throughout most of the world. Students study via distance learning for a Certificate or Diploma in Management and MBA programmes. A number of courses have compulsory residential school which students must attend. The faculty also offers Honours and Foundation degrees in Business Studies and Leadership & Management.
The first Diploma courses were developed from 1983, however the School did not become a separate entity until 1988; when development of the first MBA courses was started. The first MBA students were enrolled in 1989, and the School almost immediately became the largest business school in Europe.
Like other UK universities, the OU actively engages in research. The OU's Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute has become particularly well known to the public through its involvement in space missions. In October 2006, the Cassini-Huygens mission including 15 people from the OU received the 2006 "Laurels for Team Achievement Award" from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). Cassini-Huygens' successful completion of its seven-year, two billion-mile journey in January 2005 to Saturn ended with Huygens landing farther away from Earth than any previous probe or craft in the history of space exploration. The first instrument to touch Saturn's moon Titan was the Surface Science Package containing nine sensors to investigate the physical properties of Titan's surface. It was built by a team at the OU led by Professor John Zarnecki.
The OU now employs over 500 people engaged in research in over 25 areas, and there are over 1,200 research students. It spends approximately £20 million each year on research, around £6 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the remainder from external funders.
The Open University also runs the Open Research Online (ORO) website.
Unlike most UK universities, degree ceremonies at the Open University are not the occasion on which degrees are formally conferred. This happens in absentia at a joint meeting of the University's Council and Senate ahead of the ceremony. The University's ceremonies –- or "Presentations of Graduates" — occur during the long summer throughout Britain and Ireland, as well as one ceremony in Versailles. These ceremonies are presided over by a senior academic at Pro-Vice-Chancellor level or higher, and have the normal ritual associated with a graduation ceremony, including academic dress, procession, and mace.
The OU has over two million alumni from all walks of life, including:
The Open University has been featured in many film and television programmes. The plot of Educating Rita surrounds the working class character aiming to "improve" herself by studying English literature. She attends private tutorials run by alcoholic lecturer Frank. The teaching methods are not an accurate portrayal of contemporary teaching at the OU.
Television characters have also followed OU courses. These include Anne Bryce in the BBC sit-com Ever Decreasing Circles, Yvonne Sparrow in Goodnight Sweetheart, and Bulman, in the ITV spin-off from the series Strangers. Sheila Grant (Sue Johnston) was accused of having an affair with her tutor in Brookside. Onslow, a character from Keeping up Appearances, watches Open University programming on television from time to time.
In Autumn 2006, Lenny Henry was a star in Slings and Arrows, a one-off BBC television drama which he also wrote, about someone who falls in love while on an OU English Literature course. (Henry has himself completed an OU degree in English)
In the 2005 science fiction novel "Sunstorm", written by Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Stephen Baxter, the fictional Astronomer Royal, called Siobhan McGorran, used to work for the Open University in Milton Keynes.