The Open University: Pulling any punches?

The Open University seems like the natural progression in a world where 40mb download speeds are nothing to get excited about and fees are at an all time high of £9,000 – but can the e-University ever pose a threat to bricks and mortar?

I should disclose – I am a student of the Open University; so this post is going to be bias. Well that’s allowed, this never purported to be the news.

Fees, funding and practicalities

Let us begin with the seemingly most obvious difference and attraction of the OU: the fee. The Open University is £5,400 per year currently, if you choose full time study (so three years for your degree). My thoughts on this are mixed. Whilst on the one hand you have a £2,600 per year saving (alongside the obvious living cost savings), I come from a generation where university cost £3,000 per year and my parents went for free. I am now paying more for my second degree that I was for my first degree at a physical university. On the fees one thing that is a big advantage is you pay per module, with no requirement to study anything more than part time (usually this is 60 credits a year); which means in reality you will spend about £2,700 per year if you take this route. Fees-wise: you don’t use the Open University because you want a cost saving. The cost saving is marginal in the scheme of things. From a tuition perspective you are talking  around £27k vs. £16k: yes a good saving but it’s still £16k. There are not many things you would spend £16k on without being sure of the value.

From a funding perspective it’s much better for second timers like myself. If you are a first timer – your options are more or less the same. For those taking their second degree, providing you have a reasonable credit history you will be accepted for the OUSBA – splitting your yearly cost into 12 monthly installments with a 1.5% rate (pay about £70 on £2,700 in a year) – winner.

Practically, the Open University for a certain kind of person wins hands down. The fact is some people want to learn for learning’s sake with no commercial aim and some people want to change career paths. Whatever your reasoning – with the Open University structure you can pack your course around a very busy lifestyle. I fit mine around a 8-6 job, with a regular gym routine, spending time with my family and girlfriend along with the usual human necessities of sleep, washing etc.

You need to grow up

If you are 18, you or your parents might think that the Open University is a great way to save a bit of cash and get the same end result. Take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. Going to university is analogous to the training wheels on a bike. For certain people (you know who you are) not attending a university could deny you your vital semi-independence. Watch the bike fall 5 meters down the path. You know the type – 35, mother still does their ironing and can’t move on from Ricicles.

Give me the figures

Well okay – here is a fun fact. The Open University is the largest University in the UK. The following table from Wikipedia shows the 13/14 enrollment. Note that the Open University has some debate over if each of it’s administrative sections are distinct educational providers. Wikipedia says they are but you make your mind up. One thing I would like to see removed however is Open University students not working towards a degree. These students are not really higher education students (not to take anything away from them, it’s purely a definition thing). The OU is a bit like a college and a university rolled into one big adult learning tank.

Rank Institution Total students
Open University[a] 150,840
University of London[b] 140,405
1 Open University in England 123,490
2 University of Manchester 37,925
3 University of Nottingham 33,270
4 Sheffield Hallam University 33,100
5 University of Birmingham 32,335
6 Manchester Metropolitan University 32,160
7 University of Leeds 30,975
8 Cardiff University 30,180
9 University of South Wales 29,195
10 University College London[c] 28,430

But does it pull punches

The big question is as a stand alone degree; can a distance learning degree hold any weight against a traditional degree. The answer is mixed. One thing it really does prove is that you are a resilient and flexible human being. It requires a lot of discipline to self motivate to study; especially if you are fitting it around other commitments. This gives you a value which many employers would hold in high regard, as will academics. It is much easier to demonstrate your commitment to a subject when you get there through self motivation and packed it around a busy life.

Academically, despite anything the internet may say it just does not have the same clout as a top 20 university degree. Why? Because a degree is essentially a piece of paper a group of people printed off  which says in their opinion you are educated to a certain standard in a subject. Nothing more. What is your degree worth? Well that depends on the reputiation of the issuer. Let’s face it is Cambridge spat out morons for 100 years they could still keep on burning the reputation they built up over the years until someone clocked it eventually. Isaac Newton went there to kick off the endless list of academic immortals. The Open University has just not been around long enough to prove themselves with history: but this is okay, we all have to start somewhere. OU I hope to be on your famous alumni list someday.

That said, having spoken to admissions staff at both Oxford University and Kings College – both of these fine institutions will take OU students for postgraduate study; and there was no hesitation in the answer. So there is a decent level of respect.

It is true that the Open University is attracting younger and younger students. I am 24 and enrolled. The OU has actually been around since the 70s but in my mind its viability has increased in recent years. I think if you choose to do an Open University degree it has to be for the right reasons, many of which must be internal – to grow your confidence and to better yourself. Yes you can go to some very very exciting places and for many people, me included it is the right choice. You just have to remember all other things equal you may end up getting trumped by a graduate of a prestigious university. How do you overcome that? Make sure the other things aren’t equal.

In summary:

  • Don’t look for huge cost savings: It is still expensive so get your moneys worth;
  • If you are a young 18 year old think about the “uni experience”;
  • Academically it does not have the history of other universities;
  • The OU flexes to you – it can provide a viable option where for many there is no other choice; and
  • Internally it can give you the confidence to pursue the path you want to peruse.

What are your thoughts on distance learning?

9 responses to “The Open University: Pulling any punches?

  1. We’re thinking the same things and speaking the same language. Long distance education fits someone who juggles among busy activities but still thinks of a way to pursue personal goals. I’m studying at the Indonesia Open University, but it’s interesting to see that even the UK’s OU students also ponder the same questions such as the reputation of the institution. But hey, academic excellence is not something we can build overnight and we need to start somewhere.

    Thanks again for sharing. It’s heart-warming to know I’m not alone in this kind of struggle. Greetings from Jakarta. 🙂


    • Thank you for your comment Brad – and glad to hear you too are managing to fit your academic interests around the competing commitments of daily life. The struggle is real! What do you study?

      I agree that the academic credentials are sometimes in question but as I said it gives me great hope that the degree is accepted for postgraduate study at world leading institutions. I intend to convert mine into a Masters position at Oxford University

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s