Studying for a degree online: Open University

I’m Bill Harris, the OU Liaison person on the island. I’m actually an OU graduate, going a long way back before quite a number of you were born in fact. I’ll introduce the OU.

What is the Open University? A lot of you will know the OU because every now and then if you’re watching a BBC program you will see that it’s been produced in collaboration with the OU. Lots of things about nature, science, astrophysics, all sorts of things that the OU is involved in.

It started out in 1969, it was the brainchild of Jennie Lee and she persuaded Harold Wilson that it was the right thing to do to produce a university that was available to everybody, and by everybody that means anybody irrespective of previous qualification could aspire to getting a degree.

The demand then was absolutely enormous and it was meeting the requirements for a lot of people who had been frustrated because they’d not had the opportunities of the middle to upper classes. So there is a huge surge of people going through as teachers, in nursing, and in engineering.

We’ve got something around about 1/4 of a million students around the world. 1.6 million people have actually gone through the OU system since it came into being 43 years ago. And just as a statistic we’ve got the largest disabled student community of any UK university. There’s about 12,000 disabled students.

The university has got a very polished approach to helping disabled students to become academic achievers. And this year we’ve had a 92%  student satisfaction rating in the National Student Survey. In 2012 we were actually top, so the students that we have think very highly of the OU system. We have about 600 study modules that can count towards 250 qualifications.

Don’t ask me what they are, because I could tell you about half a dozen off the top of my head. But a huge amount of flexibility in the system in terms of what you study, when you study it, and how you study. The great thing about the Open University is that you run at your own pace. I’ll say it again a bit later on, but you’ve got 16 years in which to get an OU degree from the time you start. So over 70% of the students that we have currently are actually balancing their work and home lives towards a successful outcome.

One of the easiest things in the world is to actually get completely absorbed by your studies and ignore everything else around you. That’s one of the risks that people have to come to terms with so that they don’t exclude their friends and family on the basis of their studies. I can say that from experience because I remember it well.

My children were down there when I started studying, they were up there by the time I finished, and I thought what on earth happened in between. So that’s something that needs to be avoided. In terms of, the heading here says ‘What’s in it for you?’, in that respect at the end of the studies you would find that an employer would be very impressed by the fact that you had gone through the Open University system.

It requires a lot of dedication, a huge amount of motivation, and also a huge amount of organisation. All of those qualities are very highly sought after by employers. Professional recognition took a long time coming for a lot of the faculties, particularly from the engineering point of view. But for about 20 years now the various chartered institutions have been accepting Open University honours degrees to become chartered members of their institutions. That is a real achievement.

Huge amount of support from the OU staff to help you on your way. The one thing that we don’t have normally unless a student group in a particular module is large enough, is face to face meetings between students and tutors. So everything you would do would be online and a certain number of courses have study groups that meet, but that means travelling across to the U.K. for a Saturday morning school, or a tutor coming across to the island to run a study group on a Saturday morning. That apart, there is a tremendous amount of support from within the OU.

A lot of very expert tutors, advisors, and the other big resource that you’ve got are the other people studying the same course as yourselves. So although you may not see them face to face, unless you Skype them, you actually become a member of the study group and you’re in constant contact with them through emails, so that’s obviously 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. The OU’s online library is enormous, lots and lots of reference material on there and of course if you find yourself in Milton Keynes where the OU lives, they’ve got a huge library there too.

There is a lot of activity that goes on apart from the studies, various clubs are run by the students association, and the students association looks after the students extremely well. The way that operates is that you have to opt out rather than opt in, so you’re always a member of the students association unless you say “Thank you very much that’s not for me’. How long will it take, well I’ll come to that but it can take up to 16 years as I said from the time you start. That’s new because I remember the days when there were students who had been there pretty well all their lives, doing half a module from the beginning right the way through. So that’s all finished and now it’s time limited to 16 years. There is a careers service to help people with preparing for applying for jobs and writing CVs etc., and that’s fairly extensive. To get any benefit from that you actually have to be signed on as a student. So there is a wide choice of material and there are some copies on the table in the hall. People if they’re not sure that they’re ready for degree studies, we have access modules available.

They are 30 credit modules in Arts and Languages, Science, Technology, and Mathematics. These are designed to ease you in to Open University study, but they cannot be counted towards the degree, so they are actually weighted as 30 credit modules but they stand alone. But again you can actually present a piece of paper to an employer and say ‘look I’ve done this’.

We have standalone courses that you can take, they are either 30 credit or 60 credit courses. And just to put it into perspective, a 60 credit course requires about 16-17 hours of study a week and the 30 credit course will require about 8-9 hours a week. We have certificates, diplomas, vocational foundation degrees, and clearly the pass degree which is 300 credits, and the honours degree which is 360.

The OU is very keen for everybody to go through and get am honours degree, as opposed to the pass degree. The reason for that is you need an honours degree if you’re going to go on and do further study, and clearly an honours degree will impress an employer more so than a pass degree. A pass degree is extremely worth having, but there are 60 points difference between a pass degree and the honours degree, so one more year and you’re that much better off hopefully.

The Open university is very famous for what’s called the open degree. This is as opposed to the named degree that I will talk about in a moment. The open degree is a flexible degree that enables you to choose which streams
of study you want to go down. Generally speaking it’s only recommended that you combine two areas of study if that’s what you want to do, or you can just focus on one area.

You can actually do Education and maybe Health and Social Care within an open degree, which would not be available in the named degree portfolio. So you can actually tailor the open degree to meet your own particular requirements. It says it requires 120 credits at each of levels 1,2, and 3. So level 1 is first year, 2 second year, and 3 is the third year of study, if you did study within three years. This is opposed to the named degree, and the named degree is what you would be aiming for if you were going for a professional qualification of some sort. So the named degree requires you to study certain compulsory subjects, unlike the open degree where you can effectively chose what you study, but the named degree requires you to study a certain number of compulsory subjects, but alongside that there are some options that you can include. So if, for example, you wanted to become a chartered engineer, you’d have to do the named degree in Engineering, or if you wanted to become a chartered psychologist, you’d do the named degree in Psychology and Counseling. I’m quite happy to answer any questions if anybody’s got them at this stage. I understand it’s a lot to take in.

Becoming a student, one thing about the OU, is as I said, it’s open to everybody, that’s never changed. We do have the access modules for people who are unsure as to whether they are actually ready for Open University study or university study. The first year is still pitched at people who generally have some academic achievement at the age of 17 or 18. If you decide that you’re going to become a student, you need to choose the subject area that you’re interested in, you would chose a qualification, whether you’re going to do a certificate or diploma, or go right the way through to a degree.

The OU, once you’ve registered, provides you with the materials for the course and the course fee includes everything, so there’s no additional fees other than maybe with Arts and Humanities and maybe some set books which will be on top of the cost of the module. You’ll be allocated to a tutor and study group and that tutor’s job would be to look after you right the way through the module, in terms of your academic work and to some extent the counseling role.

Generally speaking, counseling is carried out as a central function by the OU, so whatever problem you’ve got you can refer it to your tutor and if he can’t deal with it then he’ll pass it on to the OU center and they will pick it up. Modules commence either in October or February and if you’re doing a 60 point course you have a monthly assessment as you go through the course. And right at the very end of it, say if you started in October, in May you’d have the exam or end of module assessment. There is a February presentation but the OU is trying to get everybody onto the October presentation so you actually study through the winter, then you have a three month break through the summer so you have a little rest before you start again in the next October.

The cost is interesting. We do now pay the same as U.K. students. For quite a lot time we were paying somewhat more than U.K. students but that’s now been rationalised and we pay exactly the same. So 30 credits is £1,281 and so on and so forth. What you see here is that the honours degree costs a little bit over £15,000. Ok so that’s in tuition fees. In terms of ways of paying, I’ll come back to how much it costs in a moment. In terms of paying, depending on your situation financially then you could have access to a student grant, you can pay by monthly installments, or if you’re really lucky you could get the employer to sponsor you.

I will actually go into that in a little bit more depth, because it is worth going through, as a father who’s children have just finished conventional university. As I say the OU honours degree comes out at a little over £15,000 over whatever period of time you actually study it, so you could actually study it over three years or you could actually study it over 16 years. At present day prices it’s just a little over £15,000. In terms of comparison with a traditional university, if you take a figure of £7,500 for tuition only, then you can see that there is something in the order of £7,000 less for an OU degree than it would be for a traditional university. If you’ve got a child living at home, who doesn’t want to go to a university in the U.K., then what you’re really looking at is a saving of accommodation fees of about £5,500-£6,000, living expenses at something similar to that.

So over the three years if you had a child away it would come to something like £60,000 for the degree, whereas the OU is £15,500. So I say that from the bottom of my heart having just had two children at university. But it just goes to show that you can cut the costs. As far as young people are concerned, if they don’t want to go to conventional university, and they’re not earning more than £27,000 a year, they can actually get a very hefty grant from the States. At the present time, anybody as an individual earning under £27,000 would be sponsored by 80%. So if you never earned more than £27,000 whilst you were a student, the degree wouldn’t even cost you £3,000. And it terms of recognition, and the OU degree is recognised as being at least equal to any other degree that you might come across. I can talk to anybody about that a bit later if you like.

How do I fit OU study into my life? As I said before 30 credits, 8-9 hours a week and so on and so forth. 120 credits, 36 hours a week, is a full time job, so what happens is that if people went for full time study, it would be very difficult to tie that in with employment. 60 credits is what most people do and they can work alongside that quite happily. So on basis of 60 credits a year, it’s going to take 6 years to get to the honours degree, unless you’ve already got some qualification which exempts you from a certain amount of study. In terms of how you go about it, once you sign on and you start to get stuck in, you have to have a study plan so you know what hours you’re going to study.

Some people get up very early in the morning to study, they put Saturday mornings aside, study late at night. It’s to suit the individual. Absolutely essential to be motivated, well organised, and to have the stickability. The
dropout rate is not high with OU courses, but people do dropout because they don’t realise quite the amount of work that they’ve bitten off from time to time, but generally speaking once you get past the midpoint of the course, people will stick it out and get to the end.

It’s very important to have the support of family and friends because these people know you as somebody who’s always available maybe but suddenly you’re not, and they have to accept the fact that you have to have time to put aside. So it’s very important to have that support. The other central thing is to remember to have some time off because once you get into the groove it becomes an obsession to study, study, study, and get the best possible marks, but you do actually have to break that up with a bit of leisure time.

How am I doing? For those people who get through their degrees, not too many people do three years of full time study, but after six years say, it becomes part of your life and you think what am I going to do once this degree is out of the way? There are pathways to go along, you could do masters degrees, MA, MSc, MBA, if you’re really switched on and wanted to keep going there is a master of philosophy and as you’ve just seen, a PhD at the end of it if you really want it. There are people on the island with OU PhDs and quite well known people in various fields.

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