Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Open University

This year marks 40 years since the first intake of students to the Open University. Many of us grew up with the familiar late-night OU programmes on the BBC, a legacy from Harold Wilson's dream of a University of the Air - one which would be accessible to all via the radio and the television. Despite many government assaults on it over the years, the OU has survived, and continues to strive to provide an opportunity to study for students young and old, from all walks of life. Now more than ever, we need to defend it.

Educating Rita was originally a play, thankfully made into film for those of us not cultured enough to go to theatres. It tells the story of Rita (Julie Walters), a woman from a dead-end northern working class background who seeks to better herself and improve her opportunities by gaining a degree in literature through the Open University. But by doing so, she finds herself temporarily alienated. Her familiar friends and family begin to turn on her for seeking an education, and she finds her low self esteem holding her back from embracing her studies and her new peers. Under the guidance of her tutor (Michael Caine), she slowly begins to gain confidence and prospers despite both of them initially lacking faith in her abilities. If nothing else, the film is a tremendous portrayal of the power of the Open University. Walters and Caine both give sterling and moving performances throughout, and remind us of the power of education. If you've not seen it, buy it, rent it, stream it, borrow it - just find a way to watch it.

I have some very brief and limited personal experience with the OU to share, and I cannot begin to do it the justice it deserves. My sister, having found traditional uni wasn't suitable for her, turned to the Open Uni to complete her English Literature degree. For me, this highlights just one of the groups that the OU caters to - people who enjoy education who want to study, and aspire to jobs they enjoy, but who find that the traditional university route is - for whatever reason - not suitable for them. For me, it provided a similar fall-back option. During the darkest days in the first weeks of my degree, I found my Politics modules unbearably boring and hideously difficult. Whilst in the end I decided to persevere and found that my situation was improving, at one point I came very close to dropping out, and the OU provided a comforting alternative option. Whether I chose to do a full degree through it, or just a few modules, I knew I had an mode of study which would always be open to me.

But though we may take it for granted, it nearly ended as soon as it begun, with Harold Wilson's government being replaced by Heath's Conservative administration. Seeking to make spending cuts, one of the seemingly areas to cut was the OU. It was a Labour pet project and was unproven - what motive was there to keep funding it? Only due to then-Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher's protestations was the project saved - but at the cost of higher tuition fees, fewer students, and attracting more younger students, leading Chris Christolou, former OU Secretary, had the following to say when remembering his time serving the Uni: "[Mrs Thatcher] came and tore us to shreds...She even said how could we justify spending so much money in order to satisfy the hobbies of housewives."

But it was that founding principle of providing a range of courses to people of all walks of life at a low cost that made the OU great. The OU caters to everyone - from those who want to spend 3 years focusing on their studies, to those who just want to do the odd module in their spare time.

The institution, which was dismissed by Conservative Chancellor Iain Macleod as "blithering nonsense" when it was proposed, has gone on to become a vital part of the British educational establishment, and something for us all to be proud of. Through exploring the trials and tribulations of one student, Educating Rita shows us the importance of the OU and widening access to education, and highlights why cutting the OU's £149 million budget to a mere £40 million is an absolute atrocity of a decision - that's a 73% cut. The Open University will only be open by name when its fees go up to an average of £5,000 per year from next September; gone are the days when people like Rita could choose to access free, quality higher education in a way which suits them, without fear of financial burden or not being able to afford it. To be fair, an improvement in the system is that, for the first time, part-time students will be eligible for loans, but again I hasten to point out that there will be many who don't want to take on £15,000 of debt - particularly if they're already working and earning a relatively low wage. Such debt is even more of a hindrance in a time of pay freezes, spending cuts, rising inflation, and tax rises.

Unfortunately we can't expect our politicians to remain committed to the OU. All three parties are increasingly dominated by people from the same background - middle class men and women from relatively or very wealthy backgrounds. The most prominent of them are former pupils of top public schools, and many of them went on to become a deliberate cliche by studying PPE at Oxbridge. Very few of our politicians come from average or poor backgrounds. Even Ed Balls, who likes to pretend to be a bit rough and normal, went to a private secondary school and then onto Oxford to study - you guessed it - PPE. It's deeply disturbing that so many politicians from both the left and the right come from the same very narrow background. Few of them come from families where academia isn't the standard route or where money was an obstacle. They certainly can't begin to understand the mentality that some working class kids have that university isn't for them - that it's an elite, pretentious thing that's above them. This feeling was epitomised well in Educating Rita, as she walks past some pretentious dicks chortling because someone didn't know what assonance meant. For me, those pretentious dicks represent our current politicians. We can't count on our MPs to support the OU or defend its principles, because we can't count on them to understand why it's so important. With its funding already cut by an obscene amount, it appears to be getting dangerously close to having to turn itself into a full-on profit-seeking enterprise, thereby making itself far less accessible to the Ritas of this world.

We've already seen the establishment of a new doctrine in higher education - a narrow focus upon science, maths, engineering and related subjects, to the detriment of others:
"Teaching grants for degree courses in arts, humanities and social sciences at England's universities are likely to be phased out under government plans.
Giving evidence to MPs, Universities Minister David Willetts suggested these courses would be funded wholly via tuition fees in future." (BBC News)
I predict with fear that - building upon current government's doctrine of focusing funding on 'important' subjects - the current or a future government will cease funding OU courses in the arts, languages, and humanities. At this point, the already battered institution would have completely lost its appeal to wider public by providing relaxed education for pleasure and self-improvement, rather than just with a narrow view to providing skills for the economy. No longer would Educating Rita be a beautiful summation of why it's such an important part of the British educational system. Science, maths, and engineering aren't usually the types of subjects a housewife and part-time hairdresser wants to study in her spare time, and she is unlikely to have the financial means to fund studies in other subjects, nor the willingness to take on debt to do so.

Serious assaults on; the threat of privatisation; or the threat of destruction altogether of the Open University is one of the few things that would get me on the streets protesting. It's not just the OU that we need to defend; it's what it stands for. As governments persistently chip away at the OU, they persistently chip away at the principles of social mobility and accessible education for all. Education is about more than just a piece of paper or chart about whether or not you benefit the economy. It's about improving life-chances, self-empowerment, and confidence. Destroying the OU would destroy the opportunities of those who need it most.

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