Monday, 11 May 2009

An alloyed success

I've always been a huge fan of the Open University. It's one of those legacies of the Wilson years that really seemed to catch the spirit of an age and to have gone on to make a truly positive long-term contribution to the country. Only a churl or some embittered whey-faced academic, too long in his ivory tower, could dare say anything nasty about such a cuddlesome concept.

Then I enrolled as a student, one of the 180,000-odd people being churned through the machine. And now, three years into a history degree and nearing the end, I have to wonder if the OU really does cut the mustard as a 'proper' university.

From the start the OU has had an open entry policy - hence the name - whereby students' previous academic achievemnts (or the lack thereof) are not taken into account when enrolling for courses. For someone like me, who chucked away the chance to do a Botany degree many moons ago, that's probably irrelevant - a reasonable crop of A levels would have done the job regardless - but for many who left school without qualifications, the policy is the only key to the door of higher education.

Once through that door, though, the open policy appears to continue in a way which does little credit to its much-vaunted status as a pukka university. I have no idea what the courses were like in 1969, but in 2009 they seem to be too bloody easy.

The OU states that one of its 60-point undergraduate courses requires 14 hours a week of study to master. Currently I'm signed on for two concurrent 60-pointers. By rights I should be spending pretty nearly a full working week just on the university work. Am I buggery.

Yet, on the basis of the results I'm getting, it would seem to be perfectly feasible to trouser a 2:1 with about three hours' study a week.

The material - beatifully produced, it has to be said - is effectively spoon-fed to the students and the essays (tutor-marked assigments in OU speak) are set about with so many notes, guidelines and hints that it would seem to be impossible to fail.

The pass mark is 40 per cent, but one would have to be monumentally dim to fall even anywhere near that level. Even among the Desperate Housewives who twitter on the online OU conference forums, there is never a mention of failure, and if the semi-literate, solipsistic and frankly stupid level of writing on the boards is any indication, then failure bloody well should be an option.

Yet a simple regurgitation of the materials you have seems to be adequate for a second, and it appears possible to complete a degree entirely without once looking something up in a library.

I can't help but feel I'm taking the piss. Someone like me, with a cavalier attitude to the course, who never attends tutorials (they would involve five hours of travel, for Pete's sake) and who stuffs his study into odd moments in the week, surely shouldn't be able to get away with it?

So, the OU is undoubtedly a good thing. But does it have to be quite so dumbed down? Certainly it's hardly surprising that was rated the top university in England and Wales in the 2005 and 2006 national student satisfaction survey, and second in 2007. Who's going to grumble when things are quite so soft?

Anyway, enough wittering. I've got an essay to hand in today, so I'd better get started...


  1. Look - it's no different at any 'proper' university you know.

    To fail these days you have to be either monumentally dim or monumentally cock it up. Even then...

  2. Well, I've worked for the OU for 13 years producing courses! The reason we 'spoonfeed' at undergraduate level is because they're open access (postgrad isn't open access) and we don't assume everyone has access to libraries (eg people with disabilities, the Armed Forces, prisoners etc). In these days of Internet access, however, things are changing: in my faculty we increasingly expect students to do more 'looking up' of stuff and reading stuff we don't provide. I can also assure you students do fail courses - one of my courses has a 30% failure rate probably because students come on to it as a standalone course thinking it'll be easy and it isn't. You're probably more clever/a faster reader, etc than you think - and many of your fellow students - which is why you get by on minimum study!

  3. I hasten to add that the courses I'm currently abusing are humanities course - I'm sure the science courses are rather more taxing.

  4. Bear of Little Brain17 May 2009 at 15:54

    The exam for my last unit (the Cities and Technology course taken in 2001) included a question very similar to one on my GCE O Level paper back in 1963ish. It was about the effect of cars on cities. OK the GCE answer would have required about a 15mins answer and the OU wanted a one hour written answer but still, GCE O Level and 3rd Level Uni course?