THE UK-wide Open University, which has awarded degrees to tens of thousands of Scots, could face a break-up in an independent Scotland similar to that of the BBC, it has been claimed.
There are currently 16,000 Scottish students taking courses with the Open University with key decisions over finance and academic programmes taken at its UK HQ in Milton Keynes.
However, one of the most senior figures in the Scottish OU said independence would have “huge implications” for the institution pioneered by legendary Scottish Labour MP Jennie Lee, who was associated with Glasgow’s Red Clydeside movement.
Lee was the minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the late 1960s, when the OU was introduced with its radical open admissions policy – it did not insist on any prior educational qualifications for students.
Potential impact of Yes vote
Dr Gerry Mooney, an OU senior lecturer in Scotland for 30 years, has delivered a series of lectures about the potential impact of a Yes vote on the university that operates across England, Scotland, Wales as well as Northern Ireland and is the only UK-wide university.
The OU also operates in the Irish Republic, but receives no funding from the Dublin government.
Dr Mooney told The Scotsman that the OU in Scotland may have to go it alone and become the university equivalent of the Scottish broadcasting service Alex Salmond is planning as an alternative to the BBC in the event of a Yes vote.
OU would be ‘more autonomous’ under independence
The senior academic said it would also have to loosen its links with the OU in the rest of the UK ending the arrangement where the OU in Milton Keynes gives it an annual grant and instead become “more autonomous” under independence.
He suggested the Scottish Government would “make more demands” of the OU in Scotland under independence with more specific degree subjects on Scotland’s history.
Anti-independence campaigners last night seized on the remarks by Dr Mooney, who backs a yes vote, to warn the OU could face major disruption under independence.
Labour MSP Hugh Henry, a former education minister, said: “The Open University has been an outstanding success and was delivered by a UK Labour government.
“It has helped transform the lives of students who would otherwise have missed out on the chance of a degree.
“It would be a shame if this highly respected and much loved institution was broken-up to satisfy a desire to separate from the rest of the UK.
“The Open University is yet another UK organisation that has stood the test of time.”
Dr Mooney said the Open University under independence could face changes similar to the Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), which the SNP plans to effectively replace the BBC, but still buy-in popular programmes from the UK broadcaster.
The academic, when asked said “Yes something of that kind” would be needed in terms of a separate Open University organisation for Scotland.
He went onto suggest that the OU north of the border would have to change from being a branch of the UK university run from Milton Keynes to a separate independent Scottish organisation that was in charge of all its own decisions.
Dr Mooney said: “People talk about the situation the BBC would be in. That also throws up issues for the OU as we’re the only university that works across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“If there was a Yes vote there would be huge implications for the OU in Scotland. Do we go from being the Open University in Scotland to the Open University of Scotland.”
Dr Mooney, who said he was speaking in a personal capacity, insisted that the OU, which has more than 500 tutors in Scotland, would continue to offer the same level of courses to students under Independence.
‘Political issues’ stemming from independence
Under existing arrangements the Scottish government hands part of its higher education budget to the OU’s Milton Keynes HQ, which then pays the cash to the university’s Scotland operation in Edinburgh.
However, Dr Mooney claimed there would be a shake-up of these arrangements in an independent Scotland with major changes to the way the OU operates.
Dr Mooney said he was “sure there would be in charge” in the way the OU was funded with all cash from the government’s Scottish Funding Council for higher education going to the Edinburgh base of the university.
He said: “We’re seen as a Scottish university, but work across the UK.
“We’re a UK wide institution, but we get funding from the Scottish Funding Council and the SNP government is very supportive of the OU. “My understanding is that the OU would continue to operate, but the issue would be what shape and form it would be.
“The biggest consequence for the OU of a Yes vote would be the effect it has on our relationship with the OU other parts of the UK. It’s going to throw up political issues.
“A change could under independence could be that the Scottish government says it wants to make more demands of you.
“The SNP government is very sympathetic to the OU, but after independence it could say we want more specific Scottish modules for example.
“We’d have to look at the internal financial arrangements.”
A spokeswoman from the Open University in Scotland said the institution would continue to offer “high-quality” education north of the border irrespective of the outcome of the independence referendum.
The OU spokeswoman said: “The Open University is the UK’s largest university and a world leader in flexible learning. It successfully operates across all four nations of the UK – as well as internationally – taking into account the different higher education funding arrangements and needs in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
“The Open University is committed to widening access to flexible university-level education and providing its students with a quality educational experience. Its model of delivering high quality education part-time and flexibly means it is able to work within any constitutional settlement.
“Whatever the constitutional settlement in Scotland, the OU remains committed to delivering accessible, high quality and value-for-money education.”
However, the SNP insisted that the thousands of students on the OU roll as well as the hundreds of tutors employed in Scotland would guarantee the institution’s future under independence.
SNP MSP John Wilson said: “The fear raised regarding any operational break-up of the Open University is unfounded given the current numbers of students there are in Scotland on OU courses.
“There are clearly sufficient student numbers to allow the Scottish OU to continue to deliver the courses that are currently provided.”
Open University: Flagship policy of Wilson’s government
THE introduction of the Open University was one of the flagship policies pursued by Harold Wilson’s Labour government during its 1964-70 period in office.
However, Wilson appointed Lochgelly-born Labour MP Jennie Lee as the minister tasked with delivering the University of the Air, which would later be named the Open University
Lee was tasked with delivering high quality degree-level learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend traditional campus universities.
The former MP for North Lanarkshire is widely credited with facing down hostility from parts of the educational establishment that opposed the idea of university courses for adults without any prior educational qualifications.
She had been a high profile of the member of the left wing Independent Labour Party (ILP) during Glasgow’s Red Clydeside period – the city’s era of political radicalism and industrial militancy and the emergence of figures such as the Socialist MP James Maxton, who Lee was a close ally of.
Lee was also married to the legendary Welsh Labour MP Aneurin Bevan, who introduced the National Health Service in the late 1940s.
The Open University now claims that Lee was largely responsible for the introduction of the institution.
The OU on its websites says that “Without Jennie Lee, it seems likely that Harold Wilson’s idea would have failed. Her total commitment and tenacity gradually wore down the mountains of hostility and indifference that she faced.”
However, in 1970, the Labour government was defeated in that year’s General Election and Lee not only lost her ministerial position, but also her seat at Cannock, which she latterly represented after losing North Lanarkshire.
In late 1970, she was created a Life Peer and took as her title Baroness Lee of Asheridge,
Until the mid-1980s she continued to attend the House of Lords, where she sat on the Labour benches.
Much of her time was spent writing her book ‘My Life With Nye’, published in 1980 to critical acclaim.
After suffering a deterioration in health, Lee died on 16 November 1988 aged 84.