The Open University, established in 1968 and headquartered close to the centre of Milton Keynes, is a campus without any students.
It was envisioned from the start as a College-of-the-Air and has close links with another great British institution, the BBC stemming from its earliest days.
In the otherwise stuffy and exclusive higher education environment within the UK, the OU has managed to garner a reputation for turning out high-calibre graduates, even though traditionally they have come from backgrounds where university is not thought of as a natural life choice.
CIO David Matthewman, who joined less than a year ago, is at pains to point out the difference between the OU and other remote-learning institutions.
Students do much of their study at home, alone with reading materials, but this is supplemented with online learning programmes, video content and face-to-face tutorials on a regular basis.
He says: “It’s not just books in the post, it’s much more flexible and much more supportive learning environment than most people associate with correspondence-type courses.”
Matthewman is a typical example of the sort of person who excels with an OU degree, as he also directed a lot of his own education by his own hand.
It’s easy to see that he has the ambition of someone who knows what is possible when you’ve pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps.
The OU itself is an organisation that isn’t bounded by the traditional constraints of red-brick university thinking. It’s broken new ground in flexible and open learning and with 260,000 students, it’s the biggest higher education establishment in the UK by a long way.
Other education organisations have seen how well the OU has become established and want a piece of its market, so it’s even more important that it stays ahead of the competition. That’s where Matthewman comes in.
Along with the domestic student population, the OU also participates in a couple of overseas development projects. One, Teaching Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) recycles teaching materials to over 360,000 teachers in the region. Another provides pre and post-natal guidance to expectant mothers in Ethiopia.
With its students in such a flexible and distributed environment, communications and powerful data-crunching technology is required for the university to function.
That’s not the end of the flux Matthewman has to negotiate either. The domestic higher education landscape is about to change radically, presenting certain opportunities and challenges for the university.
As Matthewman explains, the OU has a massive range of courses on offer, from conventional first degrees, Masters and PhDs, to MBAs and vocational courses. It has an extensive range of IT ratification courses, for instance. Additionally, it also offers courses that suit the leisure-learning market, such as digital photography or languages.
He says: “We do a lot of work with people from deprived backgrounds, so we do a lot of outreach work and quite often we are teaching people that have little or no educational background and they are doing it because they want to get themselves out of a poverty trap or improve their chances in life or because they want to learn things for leisure.”
The OU operates on a model of charging the student up front for modules of these courses and so up to now has not attracted undergraduates who have been used to getting their higher education for free. This has changed, making the OU revenue model not too dissimilar to other campus-based colleges.
According to Matthewman, large employers are already starting to provide alternatives to university for promising sixth-formers, which will involve some measure of learning while working.
He says: “We believe 18-24 year-olds will start to look for alternatives to traditional university education and they’ll be looking for opportunities where they can stay at home and start to work at the same time, so there could well be a resurgence of the traditional apprenticeship.”
The OU is currently reviewing its course fees, but at the moment, a degree course offered by it costs around the fifth of an equivalent course at a conventional college, so Matthewman predicts its courses will start to look very attractive to undergraduates.
This isn’t going to be ignored by conventional universities, which are now in hotter competition with the OU. At the same time, they are going to be looking harder at remote and flexible learning, points out Matthewman, to adapt with the changing education market.
He says: “So, that means the IT strategy has to be about maximising spend on value adding activity through strong governance and making sure that every project we are going to do is going to give us the highest possible value for the spend.”