In Defence of the Open University

While every university claims to be unique and special, the Open University truly stands out. The OU alone accepts students regardless of prior qualifications and at any time of life, and until recently was fairly unique in providing all of its courses as part time, distance learning, allowing students to get a university level education while balancing work and family life. It is one of those unique, fabulous, and brave institutions that define our country, and it’s my alma mater, so seeing what’s been happing over the past few months and years has been particularly hurtful.

I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of people the OU’s given a second change to, having had to leave school at 15 before completing my Highers. When I started to put my life back together in my early twenties one of the first and best things I did was start studying again through the OU, moving from 10 credit ‘Openings’ courses to undergraduate diploma, degree, and finally Masters in 2016. Over ten years of study, all part time while working full time, and paying for each course as it went, avoiding debt. This was only possible because I was able to squeak in the completion of my undergraduate degree before the 2012 changes to student fees.

That change, which trebled student ‘top-up’ fees to £9,000 per year was disastrous for the Open University in particular, and part time study in general, because it was founded on the premise of full time study for people leaving school. The needs of part time learners and mature students were largely ignored. The government complacently claimed that it would be fine as part time students were for the first time being given access to loans via the Student Loans Company on the same basis as full time students, but they were warned that this wouldn’t be the case; that part time and mature students would be more averse to acquiring such a huge debt burden due to other responsibilities – their homes and families.

Furthermore, an earlier change made in 2007, under a Labour government shamefully, withdrew funding from students studying for a second degree at the same level, making it much harder for people to retrain and change careers later in life. This was another group of students whom the OU excelled at supporting.

The result of this has been utterly and depressingly predictable. Part time study across the UK has plummeted with the Open University taking a particularly heavy hit. This is in turn having a massive impact on their revenue, staff and programmes have been cut in response, and student satisfaction is diving. The former Vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, had to resign earlier in April following a failed attempt at making further cuts and an unfortunate and distasteful comment about the nature of OU lecturers’ work. That remark aside, it’s a little harsh to blame Peter Horrocks for the OU’s current woes. He was, after all, only attempting to save the institution as best he thought he could in the face of government policy and the marketisation agenda.

The government’s hand-wringing response to this situation is laughable, with no acknowledgement that it is their own policies that have directly brought about this situation. The fee review announced in February fails, once again, to consider the needs of part time students so it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve anything. The review seems to be in response to Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, something that a Conservative government could never possibly do. The review is unlikely to accomplish anything other than tinkering at the edges, possibly introducing subject variable fees which will likely result in the further devaluing of the already heavily hit humanities. After all, no Tory government wants a well-educated and critically thinking population who might question them.

I think optimistically the best result for the Open University now is for it to be recognised as the uniquely valuable institution it is, and that a separate method of funding is made available to it. On a larger scale, it would be wonderful, even if it is wishful thinking, to pause and challenge the neoliberal dogma that the free market is the solution to all problems. A university education, and a well educated society has its own intrinsic value. For more thoughts on how the OU could be saved, see Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller’s blog post in Times Higher Education.

Dissertation

dissertation

"Crushed by Authority: Abjection and Oppression in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, The Trial and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four"

This is my dissertation, submitted for the degree of MA English. 3 copies, around 60 pages, maybe 15,000 words or so in total.

The culmination of a year’s work of my life. A year spent reading and researching Kafka, Orwell and Kristeva. I used pretty much my entire allowance of holiday to take December off to finish writing this thing. It was a frantic and stressful month. This past week has been insane. The past 48 hours… well…

Today was the final day for me to mail it in on time and yesterday turned into an all-nighter. Been a long time since I had to pull one of those. I haven’t slept since I got up at 8:30 yesterday morning. I’m utterly done in.

And now it’s over. Submitted. And I have in front of me around two months of purgatory before I find out if it’s a pass. Part of me doesn’t care. I look at all the hard work that’s gone into this and I’m proud of it. It is a thing of beauty. In a day or two, when I feel human again, I’ll even print off another copy to go on my book shelf.

FabLab Tour

We had a team visit to Sunderland’s new, very soon to open FabLab today, which has been built in partnership with the University. A FabLab is a low-cost workshop which is set up with a range of equipment designed to let almost anyone build almost anything. All FabLab’s have roughly the same equipment and facilities so that people and projects can easily move between locations, with one key piece being one or more 3D printers. Other kit available includes a bench of soldering guns and electronics for making circuits, a laser cutting and engraving machine, and a huge ShopBot CNC machine, which they had to knock a wall down to fit in.

Once the Lab properly opens to the public you will be able to get a 3D scan and print of your head for only £30. What a great and unique Christmas present for the loved one in your life!

The Results Are In – I Passed!

Just a little aside from the hurly burly of work and TEL to celebrate the fact that I passed the taught module on my MA English which I am doing through the Open University.

This was a double-length module and was assessed by five TMAs (Tutor Marked Assignments) which were aggregated and one EMA (End of Module Assignment) which I had to pass separately. The EMA was 5,000 words, so my largest piece of academic writing to date, and bridges the gap between prescribed assignments and independent research; there were limited options on texts and research areas which I had to choose between and then write my own question and proposal. My EMA was ‘How does Kim engage with the increasing British interest in Tibet in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century?’ and I passed with my highest score on the module, quite an achievement given that, roughly speaking, students are thought to drop around 10% on an exam or EMA.

My dissertation module starts in May and my thinking is either something around abjection or the ‘unheimlich’ in Gothic / horror literature, or the response to Scottish politics by Burns and Scott.

Qualifications Page

Keen-eyed observers will have noticed the new Qualifications page above, where you can see my certificates and details of the courses which I studied. I ummed and ahhed about adding this page as I’m always wary about putting too much information online, but part of the purpose of this blog is to serve as a portfolio so it is very relevant, especially as I will be citing my qualifications when renewing my CMALT and will almost certainly be hosing the submission here. And yes, the images are quite low-resolution as I don’t want any nefarious types downloading them and using them to fake their own certs.