Are we at the bottom yet? Further falls in Open University enrolments recorded during 2016/17

Today’s first release of HESA’s official student enrolment data for 2016/17 shows a further decline in part-timers. This is against a background of slightly rising numbers in higher education overall. As I’ve tracked the Open University figures since the publication of the 2008/09 data set, I’ve updated my graph. It excludes the (currently 225) students who live outside of the UK for consistency with previous years. The graph demonstrates that the institution and its students are by far the biggest loser from the changes in university funding made over the last decade.

The headline figures:

Overall student enrolments down 5,225 from 2015/16 – a fall of 4.1%

Undergraduate students down 5,830 from 2015/16 – a fall of 4.9%

Postgraduate students up 645 from 2015/16 – an increase of 8.6%

Open University Student Enrolments
Open University enrolment figures for 2008/09 to 2016/17

HESA have also provided some additional detail in the data set this year. Of the 113,285 undergraduate enrolments, 98,740 represent students working towards their first degree, representing 87% of the cohort. The remaining 13% are classed as ‘other undergraduates’ – presumably people studying for a new undergraduate qualification. Although the data isn’t there to interrogate, I suspect that this is a very different split to that during my own Open University experience some years ago.

If you want to explore the data for yourself, HESA have thoughtfully provided an interactive mechanism for doing so this year. You can get to it by clicking on the image below.

Open University Enrolments 2016/17
Open University Enrolments 2016/17

Given that the decline in part-time study is still continuing, something needs to be done, as they say. So here are three of my ideas for encouraging a return part-time study, especially among mature learners.

Open University enrolments fell again in 2015/16

It’s the time of year when HESA – The Higher Education Statistics Agency – issue their statistical first release covering student enrolments and qualifications obtained. Against a background of a small annual rise in all enrolments at UK HE providers (up 1%) and a slight fall in part-time ones (down 1%) on the previous year, Open University enrolments fell a little over 4% (*). This marks the sixth straight year of decline from a peak of 209,705 in 2009/10 to 126,620 in 2015/16. Postgraduate enrolments are around half of what they used to be.

Part-timers now account for 24% of undergraduate and postgraduate students. In the years preceding significant changes to HE finances (the abolition of ELQ funding under Labour and the tuition fee reforms under the coalition) this figure was closer to 40%.

Open University enrolments 2008/09 to 2015/16 However, the drop is nothing like as dramatic as in previous years. As a graduate of the OU, I hope that this signals it has managed to identify a new ‘core’ market and has a sustainable future. After all, in an increasingly competitive and uncertain world, top class HE providers offering accessible second chances will become ever more important.



(*) Source: Table 3 of the SFR. Numbers obtained by adding together the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments at the Open University in England (which includes overseas domiciled students), Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Open University student numbers fell 12.2% in 2014/15

The number of students studying at The Open University has fallen for the 5th consecutive year, according to figures released by The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Data for student enrolments in 2014/15 were published a few days ago. It makes dismal reading for HE part-timers. Overall, the number of part-time students fell 6%, to below 600,000. This compares to the 800,000 recorded in 2010/11. Chart 1 of HESA’s analysis provides the details.

The 6% fall is concerning enough, but the decline in Open University student numbers has been even more dramatic. Overall, across the OU in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, HESA reports total student numbers at 132,365. This is 18,470 (12.2%) fewer than reported in 2013/14.

The data shows that 11.4% fewer students are Open University undergraduates, making a total of 122,805. Postgraduate numbers have sunk to 9,560, down 21.8% on 2013/14. The full breakdown of figures across all UK HE providers can be found in Table 3 (Microsoft .xlsx format).

I’ve added this data onto the chart that I’ve been keeping for the last few years and it’s – well – terrifying.

Open University Student Numbers 2008-09 to 2014-15I continue to fear for the future of part-time education under the Conservatives. However, no political party is blameless in this unfolding scandal. Labour damaged the sector by withdrawing ELQ funding. The coalition rarely acknowledged that the sector existed. They understood it even less. They were particularly bad at recognising that the needs of mature, part-timers are very different from those of young, full-time students.

We’re still a little way from the end of OU transitional fees in England. The majority of Open University undergraduates live there, so I expect that the next couple of years will be equally tough. I hope the Open University survives. I hope that part-time education as a whole survives too! There’s no doubt that it is a significant enabler of social mobility. But as the Conservatives continue their relentless attack on aspiration elsewhere, I’m not confident that my hope is rational.

Welcome back – the OU re-launches psychology masters degrees for 2016

Update 23/12/2015: The links to all of the MSc courses and the foundation module below now go to an error page. My understanding is that they have been postponed until October 2017.

Last year, the Open University announced that it intended to start offering masters qualifications in psychology again from 2016, after mysteriously withdrawing them a few years ago. More details of the qualifications being offered are now available on their website.

The MSc choices appear to be Psychology (F74) – wisely, they seem to have dropped the idea of calling it Contemporary Psychological Studies – or Forensic Psychological Studies (F73). There’s also a related MA in Crime and Justice (F75).

At present only the 30 credit foundation module, DD820, is described in any detail. It will start for the first time in October 2016, with registration opening next February. Assuming that the OU meet their published timetable, the final module required for the MSc Psychology qualification (the dissertation) will start for the first time in February 2018. I guess this means that the first new postgraduates will be receiving their awards later on that year or in early 2019. However, they do say that you are allowed to take up to 10 years to complete the qualification if you wish to.

Neither MSc appears to be accredited by the British Psychological Society and the fees for the first presentation of DD820 haven’t been published yet. Assuming F73 and F74 are classified as science qualifications, the guidance offered at the moment suggests that the total costs will be somewhere between £5,244 and £8,222 (2015 prices).

Why #PartTimeMatters

A copy of the 2015 edition of the Open University’s magazine “OpenMinds – for enquiring alumni” was waiting for me when I arrived home this evening. There’s some great content in it – for example, articles on the Philae Lander, driverless cars and research into social exclusion, all of which OU academics and alumni have contributed significantly to. All this success makes the leading article written by the OU’s new vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, a particularly disturbing read.

Peter points out that five years ago before the changes to university funding in England (a.k.a. the trebling of undergraduate tuition fees), more than 580,000 people across the UK were studying for a degree part-time. In 2014 this number fell to just under 370,000. England has borne the brunt of the decline, with a 41% decrease. Even though the OU says that it has managed to grow its market share, the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate OU students is down by approximately 60,000 in this period.

The obstacles being put in the way of access to part-time learning in England come at a point in history when the 9-5 job for life has gone, replaced more typically with 5-9 jobs during a working lifetime. The ability for adults to learn new skills has therefore never been more important. However, the costs for those who have a degree that needs updating or who dropped out of university first time around are becoming increasingly prohibitive. The OU does provide excellent value at £2,700 per 60 credits (£16,200 for a degree instead of the more usual £27,000 at a ‘brick’ establishment), but four years ago, OU students in these categories would have only needed to find around £4,000-£5,000. One of the consequences of the last few years (in England, at any rate) is that university level education is no longer seen as being a public good – but a cost to the taxpayer that must be avoided, as education only benefits the individual receiving it. Which is a political choice of course, but utter nonsense. Just ask the Germans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employers, who should be significant beneficiaries of investment in part-time learning, now appear reluctant to directly fund their employees. Figure 14 on page 26 of this Universities UK report shows that the number of employer-funded part-time undergraduate students dropped from just over 40,000 in 2011-12 to around 22,000 in 2012-13.

For someone without a degree there have been some crumbs of comfort, as non-means tested loans have now been made available to part-time learners in England. However, part-time students are still not treated equally, as their repayments start after four years of study (2/3rds of the way through a three-year degree), rather than after graduation.

The tuition fee reforms of the coalition government were bad enough for the part-time sector and those who wished to use it. However, the apparent intent of the current Conservative government to go back on their promise to uprate the £21,000 salary threshold for student loan repayments (in effect increasing the financial burden on recent graduates and nearly-graduates still further), along with their manifesto pledge to divert FE funding for mature learners to apprenticeships, look set to damage the interests of part-time, mature students still further.

In his article, Peter Horrocks asks all OU alumni to “… join the whole OU community and help fight for part-time eduction. [and to] Tell friends, family and anyone of influence about the frightening fall in part-time numbers and create an imperative to tackle the problem.

I’m fairly sure that the contents of this blog, from when I started it in 2008, witnesses to the power of part-time education in my own life. And as this video says, the most important thing that everyone learns at the OU is what they’re capable of.

OU student numbers decline by a further 10.3% in 2013/14

The latest statistical first release from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) was made on 15th January. New part-time enrolments (often, but not always, mature students) have fallen by 8% across the whole sector, adding to a 15% decline from the previous year. New full-time enrolments have increased by 1%.

Table 10 of the release provides a detailed analysis of OU student numbers (who are all considered to be part-time, regardless of the intensity of study undertaken). This has allowed me to update the chart I created last year.

OU Student Numbers 2008-09 to 2013-14The chart shows a year on year decline of 10.3% in overall student numbers, with an 11.7% decline in undergraduates. However, the number of postgraduate students has increased by 8.8%, albeit still below the number being taught by the OU in 2011/12.

The OU has, of course, taken steps to ensure that it is able to survive in the current climate, not least by the nearly four-fold increase in module fees charged to students domiciled in England who are not on transitional fee arrangements. However, you can’t help but worry when you see figures like these for (a) the health of the institution and (b) the impact that changes in HE funding arrangements must be having on those who want or need to re-skill themselves later on in life. Lifelong learning continues to be undervalued by this government in much the same way that the previous Labour government undervalued it when they removed ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification) funding in 2008.

Perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. At the end of last year, UCAS released figures demonstrating that the number of students placed at UK HE institutions in 2014 reached an all-time high (these acceptances will of course be reflected in next year’s release from HESA). However, it would be misleading to extrapolate this data to the Open University as UCAS do not administer their admissions.

I wish Peter Horrocks, the new vice-chancellor of the OU, every success in the role which he is due to start on the 5th May, a mere two days before the general election. Let’s hope that whatever colour(s) the next government consists of they will be rather more sympathetic to the needs of lifelong learners than the last two have been.


Will David Willetts become the next OU vice-chancellor?

Just under a week ago Martin Bean, the current OU vice-chancellor, announced that he was going to step down from his £407,000 post at the end of this year to return to Australia.

Today David Willetts, the universities minister, has decided to step down from the cabinet with immediate effect and will leave the commons at the next election.

Perhaps the vice-chancellorship of the OU would be a good retirement job for him? It would certainly offer him a significant pay-rise. But if it were to happen, I do wonder how it might be perceived by staff, alumni and students. After all, despite being in favour of restoring Labour’s savage cuts to ELQ funding while in opposition, he failed to do very much about it when in a position of power until it became obvious that part-time, mature students were no longer investing in updating their skills. It’s also arguable that the OU, which used to rely to a large extent on ELQ students and teaching for its income rather than loan-attracting first-timers and research, has suffered more than most under the changes that he has presided over.

Anyway, I suspect that this is most likely a QTWTAIN. But, if in a few months time, David Willetts is appointed as the next OU VC, remember where you read the speculation first!

Update (16/07/2014) – As Mr Willetts is the current MP for Havant, perhaps the vacancy that’s just arisen at Southampton University may be more appealing?


Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, has announced that he will be leaving at the end of the year to take up a post at RMIT, Australia’s largest tertiary educator. He’s been at the helm during what has probably been the most tumultuous period since the OU was founded in 1969. Making sure that the OU survived in any recognisable form at all after the ill-thought out changes to HE funding introduced by the coalition has been no mean feat. I certainly wish him well for the future.

In his email today addressed to OU alumni he writes:

After five wonderful years at The Open University, I am stepping down at the end of this year as Vice-Chancellor of the OU. I am going back to my home town of Melbourne, Australia, where I will be taking up the role of Vice-Chancellor and President at RMIT University – an institution with values and a spirit similar to our own.

Throughout my time here, I have been clear that students lie at the heart of everything the OU does.  Without a doubt, the highlight of this job is presiding at our degree ceremonies – standing on the stage, shaking a procession of sweaty palms and celebrating your success.

I am very proud of the steps we have taken during my time here to strengthen the relationship between the University, its students and alumni.  The Open University Alumni Association does a tremendous job of representing you, and the Alumni Relations team are working tirelessly to identify and provide you with opportunities to stay in touch, continue your studies and share your inspiring stories.

The Open University transforms lives for the better – it has certainly transformed mine.  As students and alumni you are what makes the OU truly remarkable and I wish you all every success for the future.

Best wishes,


Martin G. Bean

I don’t remember my palms being all that sweaty on graduation day, but I bow to his undoubted expertise in such matters!

Good news – OU psychology MSc courses to get a reboot in 2016

Good news reaches me from the Open University. After a gap of several years, the foreseeable future has arrived and there are now plans to offer three different masters qualifications in psychology from 2016.

Details are fairly sketchy at the moment, but it appears that they will be offered as two-year, part-time qualifications consisting of a 30 credit foundation module, 90 credits of taught content and a 60 credit dissertation. The degrees are planned to be offered in Contemporary Psychological Studies, Forensic Psychological Studies and Criminological Studies.

There are no plans to have the qualifications accredited by the British Psychological Society, which seems a bit of a shame, but my understanding is that this shouldn’t be a concern if your undergraduate qualification has already given you the graduate basis for chartership (GBC), which the OU degree in psychology (B07 or Q07) does. I expect that this omission will help them to contain the costs of tuition, which are currently unknown but expected to be in line with other OU masters qualifications.

Information for prospective OU students outside of the UK & Ireland

If you’re thinking of studying with the Open University, but don’t live in either the UK or Ireland, you may be interested in this recently launched website for prospective students from the rest of the world.

It’s aim is to make all of the information relevant to overseas students accessible in a single place. The Open University claims to be the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality online degrees and distance learning. It serves students across the globe with highly respected qualifications, including the triple accredited MBA degree.

The OU may not have as many students as it once had, but as a former OU student and graduate I can thoroughly recommend the experience.