IN the run-up to the Scottish referendum, one of the Open University’s unique features has attracted attention from commentators both within Scotland as well as much further afield.
As the Open University is the only university that operates across all four nations of the UK, we are increasingly facing two common questions: what is our position on the referendum and will we manage to operate here in the event of a Yes vote?
It often comes as a surprise to even the politically aware that the OU has already demonstrated its ability to adapt to the demands of different governments, whilst presenting a seamless, high-quality service to students. In a post-devolution world, the Open University has had to meet the policy requirements of four different governments and the expectations of three different UK funding bodies.
One of the biggest challenges the Open University faced was managing the consequences of the UK government’s decision to remove the teaching grant in England, thereby increasing university fees for students in England. This policy decision heralded the introduction of four different fee regimes for OU students based on their location within the UK. As a result, an OU student in England now pays a different fee for the same course delivered to an OU student in Wales.
More recently, the difference in course fees for an OU student in England compared with those for an OU student in Scotland has became more apparent, given the Scottish Government’s decision to extend free higher education to more part-time students. However, when grant funding is taken into account, universities’ total teaching income per funded student is much closer across the UK.
Fully aware that introducing different fees was likely to lead to loud cries of “not fair”, the Open University carefully managed its communications so our students understood that this was not the result of some arbitrary decision on its part. During this same period, the Open University implemented a series of internal changes to ensure that OU students in England could access a loan from the Student Loans Company to cover their fees, while maintaining normal service to all students wherever they were located.
The Open University was built on a model of open supported learning to deliver quality higher education over a broad curriculum spectrum at a scale which has allowed it to operate across national boundaries.
Not only does the OU successfully operate across all four UK nations, it also delivers higher education in areas outside the UK, including the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Europe. By necessity, it has had to have enough flexibility to adapt quickly to external changes and adjust to different environments. It is this flexibility that will allow the OU to operate within any constitutional settlement in Scotland.
We recognise that even in the event of a No vote, constitutional arrangements are unlikely to stand still and that the Scottish Parliament can expect to see more powers devolved to it in the near future. While the Open University has adopted a neutral position in relation to the referendum and will work with the democratic will of the people in Scotland, as a learning provider, we are actively encouraging people to become involved in the debate.
Through our OpenLearn site, we have published a series of freely available on-line resources, The Politics of Devolution, which provide a background to the referendum and an outline of the crucial issues under debate. In addition, later this year, we hope to launch more on-line interactive resources to inform the public discussion and encourage more people to become actively involved in the debate.
The Open University is the leading provider of part-time higher education in Scotland with over 15,000 students. Its mission is to widen access to high quality university-level education through providing flexible learning through an open supported learning model with the support of over 500 tutors across Scotland.
It has achieved this so successfully that satisfaction for the past eight years the Open University in Scotland has been voted top for overall by our students via the National Student Survey. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we are committed to ensuring that none of this changes.
• Dr James Miller is Director, The Open University in Scotland: www.open.ac.uk/scotland