The Open University, approaching its fiftieth year, is launching a radical overhaul to ensure it is ready for the challenges of the next half century.
It is conducting a root and branch review of every aspect of its operations – from the experience of students to its teaching and research – to enhance its reputation as a world leader in lifelong and distance learning.
A major savings and reinvestment plan will recreate the University so that it is digital by design and places the needs of students and the wider economy at the centre of all it does.
The proposals are designed to recognise future economic challenges and to provide leadership in preparing the wider workforce for a time of unprecedented change. The Open University believes it can play a crucial role in helping employers and employees respond to the rapid rise in automation which is expected to sweep away millions of existing jobs. The rising generation of students may be the first who routinely have to retrain and improve their skills throughout their careers to adapt to a rapidly evolving economy.
The Open University transformation programme will deliver over the next two years:
Students will have greater choice over when they start courses and the pace of their study. They will be able to work flexibly on screen, tablet or mobile - and they will be more closely supported than ever by tutors delivering a hands-on, highly personalised education.
Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of the OU said: “We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud – a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy.
“A revitalised and redesigned OU should be at the heart of the digital revolution by becoming a leading exponent of the use of digital technology for teaching and supporting students; by helping educate the digital citizens of the future; by undertaking research that can help equip society for a digital world.
“The OU will still be the OU. We will retain our core mission of offering higher education to all, regardless of background or previous qualifications. But we will be delivering it in a different way, matching future needs to future technology.
“We were disruptive and revolutionary in our use of technology in 1969, and as we approach our 50th year, we intend to be disruptive and revolutionary again, to transform the life chances of tens of thousands of future learners.”
The proposals are in part a response to financial challenges facing The Open University. Funding changes introduced since 2007 by successive UK governments have hit hard the number of part-time students entering higher education in England (see point 4 in Notes to Editors). Student numbers at the OU have fallen by almost a third in the past decade and that has had a significant impact on income. At the same time, fixed costs have remained relatively static and in a changing market place competitors are “cherry picking” popular and profitable courses.
The transformation process will put the OU on a sustainable financial footing. It is expected to achieve savings in the order of £100 million from the OU’s annual budget of around £420 million. It is intended that more than half of that sum will be reinvested in building a University fit for the next 50 years.
All parts of the University’s operations are in scope. Among the issues to be tackled are duplication and inefficiency resulting from years of piecemeal development, a problem faced by most universities; courses on the curriculum which were once popular but which now struggle to cover costs and others which have never attracted many students; research costs which outstrip grant income.
Change on this scale will inevitably impact on staff because staff make up two-thirds of the OU’s operating costs. The proposed transformation in teaching, research, IT systems and the running of the University will inevitably mean that the number and types of roles will change. In coming years, fewer people will be needed overall. Detailed work will be carried out over the next six months to clarify the figures and the scale of change.