OU taught masters degrees “not valued” and expect “no research”? What nonsense.

Tucked away on the OU platform website this week was an article written by Dr Petrina Stevens (the OU community representative on Senate). The full text of the article is available here and appears to be a brief summary of the key findings of the long-awaited postgraduate review, presented to Senate by Professor Sharon Ding.

I’m all too aware of the difficulties of getting the gist of what I hope was an incredibly detailed presentation and fiery debate into a brief article. However if what has been reported is an accurate reflection of the postgraduate review then I’m very disappointed indeed.

I have two main bones of contention with the article. First of all is the implication (presumably from the postgraduate review) that because some people don’t understand that Open University degrees are every bit as hard-won and rigorous in their academic standards as those awarded by other institutions, there must be something wrong with OU degrees per-se.

… the OU is fighting a perception by some people with no OU experience, that it offers degrees which have less value than those from more conventional and established universities. In order to be competitive and to attract students, the OU is changing the identity of its taught Masters degrees.

This kind of analysis is a classic example of mistaking a correlation (people who haven’t experienced the OU for themselves think its degrees are somehow not as good as other equivalents) with cause and effect (because people think this it means that the degrees really aren’t as good as those from elsewhere).

Even if, for the sake of argument, OU degrees were not every bit as good as those from elsewhere, I’m unconvinced that simply saying “everything is new and shiny now” is the right way to address such a perception.

The OU’s current marketing material doesn’t pander to these myths:

How highly are OU degrees rated?

Very. And not just academically. When potential employers see you have an OU qualification, it’s immediately obvious that you have other skills that candidates with non-OU qualifications might not – such as commitment and motivation. Students with the OU often have juggled many other commitments at the same time as studying and many employers have studied with the OU.

and:

We have more than 22,000 students studying at postgraduate level, many of them working towards a masters degree – e.g. an MA, MSc or MBA. We also offer PhDs and Research degrees (full or part time).

However, it’s the assertion that the current OU taught Masters programmes:

… by design these degrees omitted one element, and that was the chance for students to search out relevant and respected research (‘found’ material) to support their studies

which has annoyed me the most. This is a factually incorrect statement as well one which is potentially damaging to the reputation of the OU and of the students who have taken these qualifications.

Leaving the Masters degrees aside for a moment, my psychology BSc required independent research on both of the level 3 modules (DD303 and DD307). Even a couple of the level 2 modules (ED209 and DXR222) expected some of this too. It would therefore be very strange if at the Masters level all thought of independent research was simply abandoned!

And indeed, the (now withdrawn) taught Masters in psychological research methods certainly expected a significant level of independent research (I know, because I have a copy of the prospectus!) Even examining a few of the descriptions for currently available OU Masters programmes, it is obvious that self-guided research is almost invariably a significant component.

For example:

MA in English: “If you wish to develop your research and analytical skills and upgrade your qualifications the MA in English course is for you.”

MA in Childhood and Youth: “…you will choose either a small research project around a topic relevant to the module or a literature review. ”

Master of Laws: “Through your study you will have the opportunity to enhance your legal research skills and develop expertise in a chosen field.”

MSc in Engineering: “This MSc in Engineering course builds on previous study and offers you an opportunity to research an engineering topic in-depth.”

MSc in Technology Management: “… you can take Research project (T802), where the production of a dissertation will develop your academic research skills.”

I therefore really hope that this is a “rogue” article and that contrary to the impression it gives, the OU have been quietly investing their efforts in genuinely understanding how to best improve their taught Masters programmes.

14 comments

  • P. Stevens

    Although over two years old, I have just been shown this webpage and I am horrified as to how I have been misrepresented. The article referred to a report which mentioned how some of the public reviewed OU degrees. Insinuating that these are my views is disgraceful.
    I started to study with the OU in 1976 and understand perhaps more than most how the OU works, the original ethos of the OU, and above all the quality of the degrees. I was merely reporting and not giving my views, which in fact are the opposite.
    Yes, I too was upset by what was said. However, if I took it to heart it would suggest my own BA., MA and Ed.D., were worthless, but people’s opinions are often uniformed and I console myself that if they had the facts, their opinions would change. This applies to many issues, not just facts about the OU.
    I have been completely misunderstood and misrepresented on this site. Despite working very hard in my own time to report back on Senate (I worked in isolation as an unpaid volunteer and the work turned out to be twice as much as originally agreed), I have been treated badly by those who just did not understand the article. I had no guidance as to how to report or what was wanted, I just reported what was said.
    I was the only person there representing graduates who outnumber the students of course. Nevertheless, student representatives were present in much greater number, enabling them to discuss what was said before reporting and refine understanding.
    I was also very concerned to find that the Senate articles were put on to social media without my knowledge or permission. I was placed in a very vulnerable position without any duty of care by the OU. I therefore resigned, not only due to the work load, but because I did not approve of private and confidential matters from Senate being on social media and I am amazed that this was allowed.
    Having security in knowing the OU degrees are excellent in quality and delivery should mean we can withstand the comments reported in Senate. I have chosen not be contacted with responses, as time (and I hope all of us) has moved on. However it may appear that some comments about my article are as uniformed as those who think the OU degrees have no value.

    • tim

      Thank you for your comment and I’m more than happy to publish it here of course. It made me re-read what I’d written over two years ago as well as the comments made on the blog post by others at the time.

      Firstly, I’d like to apologise if you feel that I insinuated in any way that the statements made about the value of OU taught masters courses in your original OU Platform article that my post refers to (which is sadly no longer available online as the OU have subsequently retired the Platform website) were your views. That was certainly not my intention and I don’t believe that what I wrote in any way suggested that that was the case.

      Rather, I specifically make the point that your article was a report about what you believed to have been said at the Senate meeting by the person or people who presented the postgraduate review. My concern (and that of the other commenters on my post) was directed towards anyone who was trying to downplay the value of the existing OU taught masters courses by suggesting that they weren’t valued by employers and others, and that they didn’t require any element of “found” research. My assumption from reading your original Platform article was that these statements were made to Senate by the author(s) of the review, and not you.

      The examples I quoted from the OU’s own prospectus of the time makes it clear that if such statements were being made, they would have been of dubious accuracy to say the very least.

      I’m pleased to report that like you, I personally found my time at the OU very valuable. My current university certainly respected the work that had gone into obtaining my OU degree when they accepted me onto their masters course and the ability I gained while taking my BSc to research a subject and find additional material from trusted academic sources to support arguments and hypotheses has prepared me very well for the rigours of further study.

      I obviously can’t comment on how the OU and others on the Senate at the time treated you, but what you write about it sounds appalling. I wish you all the best for the future and I’m genuinely sorry if your interpretation of what I wrote in good faith at the time has caused you any renewed distress today.

      • tim

        I’ve also found a copy the original comment that I made directly on the Platform article at the time (Monday 2nd July 2012 at 19:37) and it also makes it very clear that I wasn’t criticising the author of the OU Platform article, rather, questioning the apparent conclusions of the postgraduate review. This is what I wrote (with my spelling errors intact):

        I too was rather taken aback by this article and I hope I’ve managed not to “shoot the messenger” in my own repsonse here.

        Specifically, I’ve yet to see any current, credible research indicating that the OU and its qualifications are undervalued by any segment of the population that actually matters to its alumni. Other academic institutions seem to value OU qualifications (after all, I’ve just had an unconditional offer for a place on an Occupational Psychology masters at Leicester Uni as a direct result of my OU BSc) and as an interviewer, I’ve never discriminated against candidates with an OU degree – quite the opposite on some occassions – and that was before I was an OU graduate myself!

        Even the Prime Minister rates the OU highly if his two visits to Walton Hall either side of the last election are anything to judge public perception by. So my first question is does the postgraduate review produce such evidence – and if so, where and when will it be published?

        Secondly, looking through the current Taught Masters prospectus I struggled to find a single one (in fact, I couldn’t) – where at least some element of research is not required to successfully complete them. The five I picked out in my blog article are across all disciplines, not just sciences. There may be an issue of terminology here I suppose – I’m looking at the overall qualification, not just the individual modules that go to make it up, so I don’t quite understand the comments about dissertations and taught masters being different – they’re not – a dissertation is (nearly always) a component of an OU masters qualification.

        Thirdly, if the OU really are concerned about increasing the number of masters students as Dr Stevens’ response to <> implies, why on earth were ALL of the MA and MSc social science masters modules withdrawn to new entrants at the end of 2010/beginning of 2011 without any replacements approved or even in sight? I understand that a few thousand students were taking one or more of the social sciences modules at any one time. I’d have been one of them by now if they were still available – and I know that the psychological research methods (taught masters!) qualification had a significant weighting towards ‘found’ material.

        Anyway, I hope that the postgraduate review does have the impact of further improving the OU’s standing and that there’s a rapid return to the OU being able to offer a range of social science masters qualifications, including psychology, in the future.

  • tim

    Me, Strategc Hero and Claire

    Thank you all for your comments – they’re very useful in informing the debate. I think my own views are closer to Claire’s and those of Limes … but I’m happy for people to attempt to persuade me otherwise!

    Since I wrote this post, I’ve also taken the time to comment on the original ‘platform’ article as it appears that Dr Stevens is willing to engage in debate there – and as a representative of the OU alumni community on Senate I think it’s important that we ensure that she’s aware of the depth of feeling amongst alumni – supportive or otherwise. Can I therefore encourage you all to do the same (or do so on the appropriate OUSA Matters forum thread if you have access to studenthome?)

    Thanks,

    Tim.

  • Claire_M

    A few facts to back my assertions. OU humanities MAs are all structured the same way. Let’s take the one dear to my heart, classical studies, as our case study. It has three modules, one of which is a 16-18,000 dissertation. Here is the module: http://www3.open.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/course/a867.htm

    Kings College London, nice, venerable institution. Lo, and it has a similar structure to the OU for its classical studies MA. Slightly smaller dissertation requirement (10,000) words, but very similar to the OU otherwise. Here is it’s course page: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/prospectus/graduate/classics/structure

    How about Nottingham, that came high up on the Google rankings for ‘classical studies MA’. Again, compulsory modules and again, a slightly-shorter-than-OU, dissertation requirement. There are also optional modules, which presumably mean the core ones are a bit smaller, like the dissertation requirement is: http://pgstudy.nottingham.ac.uk/postgraduate-courses/ancient-history-masters-ma/course-content_26.aspx

    I could go on…

  • Claire_M

    @Strategic Hero. OU does not offer things like ‘student experience’ (ie, canteens and lots of counselling) which is what the league table take account of. Hence why it isn’t included.

    @ Me. You’re right: the OU should take every step to ensure that its degrees are valuable – like other universities this means routinely reviewing their curriculum etc. But saying, essentially, some people who don’t know much about the OU think it’s degrees aren’t as good as others, is not part of that process. That’s like saying ‘even though you know nothing whatsoever about what you’re talking about, you’re absolutely right, the OU’s degrees aren’t that good!’

  • Claire_M

    As someone halfway through their dissertation for the third year of my OU MA (Classical Studies), I am somewhat astounded by the assertion that there is no research element to the programme. I must be missing all the spoon feeding as this year I have:

    – no set books or similar material
    – to produce and have accepted a research proposal
    – using research libraries etc to produce a 16-18k dissertation on my thesis

    If that isn’t ‘research,’ could someone please spoon feed me what is?

  • Strategic Hero

    As a long life fan of the OU, I do understand that some people/employers might not understand the concept of the OU. Unless you have studied with them, then its hard to change perceptions.

    Someone who has not heard of the OU, would naturally have the perception that a qualification from a physical red brick university has more worth then from the OU. They may assume its 100% on-line (no exams, no residential sessions, no tutorials) when in fact, its harder to get a 1st with the OU then most redbrick universities ! eg: To achieve a 1st class degree with Kings College London you need 70%+, with the OU its 85% + !

    The OU does not appear in league tables alongside other redbrick universities, again can affect its perception of not being a real university.

    Ironically quite a few universities (Russell Group ones) now offer some kind of part time/distance learning courses similar to the OU.

  • Me

    I love studying at the OU, I really love how things are taught, I love the books, the DVDs, just everything. But I can see where this statement comes from and I don’t think it’s been made up. Neither do I think we should accuse senate members of denigrating OU postgraduate degrees. I do believe that the OU should make every step necessary that their degrees are not just degrees, but valuable degrees. And for me that includes questioning the value of degrees.

  • Limes Wright

    I’m amazed you managed to leave it a few days before blogging about it. As you say, hopefully there were people who contested this preposterous assertion. If you get your hands on the minutes, can you let me know so I too can have a read please?

    • tim

      Hi Limes,

      I’ve had an “interesting” week. I had no option but to leave it until today – and even then it took me several drafts before all of the expletives were removed from it! πŸ˜‰

      Tim.

  • Limes Wright

    The article must have made me really angry. I’m still thinking about it and have an additional comment. Not only did many of us seek out external resources but, using and referencing external literature in our work was an absolute must if we wanted to achieve the highest grades.

  • Limes Wright

    I’ve just read the article you’ve provided the link for and like you, I too found myself particularly homing in on the so called ‘omitted element’. I am absolutely flabbergasted at this statement. The undergraduate degree also comprised comprehensive set books, nonetheless, most of us still had to seek out additional external resources to aid our studies. For the research project element in particular, we had to conduct an extensive external search of relevant peer reviewed research papers, before we were authorised to embark on our particular research ideas. I cannot believe the taught Masters programme would be any different and that incredibly, an OU representative has put this in their article as though this is actually the case. I really hope those with experience of an OU Masters programme will come forward in their droves to defend its reputation. Absolutely unbelievable.

    • tim

      Hi Limes,

      The article on Platform had been bugging me ever since I read it a few days ago. I tried to let it go, but I couldn’t – it just makes me angry to think that this is what was actually said at an OU Senate meeting – or at least, someone’s impression of what was said. I can’t believe that it wasn’t contested – but unfortunately until the minutes are published we won’t be able to find out – nor will the OUSA reps be able to comment either. As you say, absolutely unbelievable.

      Tim.

Your thoughts?