The Open University gave millions of Britons a second chance. Now it needs one itself

The Guardian reports that one by one, the great institutions that bind Britain together are being allowed to fray, weaken and decline. They may do good and even vital work, but whatever their purpose – from the system of legal aid to the Open University – they are under siege. Britain might be substantially richer than it was 40 or 50 years ago but the national narrative is that organisations once energetic and growing are now unaffordable. The overriding moral imperative is to lower allegedly insupportable taxation, not to create public goods or sustain the institutions that bind.

Last week, it was the Open University that was in the news as its beleaguered vice-chancellor resigned after a mere three years in the role. He may have been right about the necessity to re-engineer the institution, to refocus it on lifelong learning and find savings, given the 20% fall in its income. But the scale of the proposed redundancies – more than a quarter of the workforce – felt to the academics and the wider staff swingeing. There was too little valuation of research, a crucial component of any university. There may have to be change, but not to put the very idea of the OU at risk.

The OU, for all its achievements as one of Europe’s leading higher educational institutions, with more 170,00 students, is a Cinderella of our higher educational system. One of the more inspiring afternoons in my life was witnessing and speaking at an OU graduation ceremony. Up to the stage came mature men and women who had studied, against the odds, to win themselves the degree that circumstances had denied them when they were young.

The uninhibited cheers, the Mexican waves and the tears were not the stuff of your common or garden graduation. One woman, partially disabled, had worked 15 years for her degree; another was so intensely moved that she needed assistance to collect her degree. You don’t often find so much good and heart on offer anywhere – and I inwardly congratulated the greatly undervalued Harold Wilson, who had the vision to found the institution despite widespread scepticism.

For older students, there just isn’t the time in their remaining career to pay back such debts and they also have the commitments of family. The 1970s were economically tough, but governments of both political hues threw their protective mantle around mature and part-time students – the OU’s student numbers boomed to more than a quarter of a million. Since 2012, when fees rose to £9,000, applications have plummeted by around a third. The OU has been left with a cost structure out of kilter with its now depleted revenue.

Jeremy Corbyn at least put student debt decisively on the political agenda and there is now a committee under the leadership of Philip Augar, charged by Theresa May with assessing reform options, with phasing out the whole system expressly excluded. But there is still scope for more limited reform for mature and part-time students. Put bluntly, unless the state assumes more share of mature students’ fees, Britain can say goodbye to offering older adults a second chance or any system of lifelong learning.

I doubt the Department for Education will listen. Although the 1944 Education Act enshrined the principle that “the nature of a child’s education should be based on [their] capacity and promise and not by the circumstances of [the] parent”, successive Tory secretaries of state have found the commitment irksome. And, if anything, the attitude towards mature students is the thin end of the wedge. I learn that, post-Brexit, DfE officials are considering making all non-UK nationals pay for their children’s education, introducing an apartheid system into our national education. All Brexit supporters should hang their heads in shame.

Read the full article The Open University gave millions of Britons a second chance. Now it needs one itself

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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