Open University students in limbo over fees until spring 2012

Update: 21st July 2011 – the OU fees for September 2012 onwards have now been published – see this article for details.

The OU has been silent so far on what it intends to charge for its courses post September 2012, and there’s no early end to this silence in sight.

We now know what the majority of  full-time institutions are looking to charge and it’s well above the £7,500 mean that the government worked out its funding calculations on (£8,665.03 at the moment, according to Times Higher Education.) It looks like OFFA are going to have their work cut out over the next few weeks and months in deciding if the programmes these institutions are suggesting will widen participation actually cut the mustard.

However, we don’t know what the OU is planning to charge. One reason for this is because part-time study doesn’t currently fall under the remit of OFFA (apparently, the delayed white paper is due to change that.) So anyone hoping for an announcement soon as to what OU course fees will be post September 2012 is probably going to be disappointed. This blog post on sets out the OU’s position – anyone thinking of OU study as a way of escaping higher fees will have to wait until the spring of next year to find out what the actual fees will be.

Now, in some ways, this may be a good thing. If the OU is able to continue to offer its courses at around a half to two-thirds of what it costs to study full-time at a traditional university, then I think the future for the OU is relatively bright.

At traditional universities, 2011-12 tuition fees for most full-time undergraduate courses will be £3,375.

At the OU, courses have variable charges, but a ‘typical’ 60 credit course looks as if it will be in the £700 to £1,165 range (e.g. DD101, E303 are £700; DD307 is £770 and DD303 is £1,165), excluding undergraduate courses in Law which look to be really poor value at around £2,130 for a 60 credit course such as W201, W300 or W301.

So, the equivalent of a final year psychology degree (DD307 + DD303) is currently £1,935 – just 57.3% of the fees of a traditional university. If the OU is able to hold its fees in this range (and taking the THE average of £8,665.03 as the post September 2012 benchmark), then we should expect the equivalent fee to be around £4,965 (or just under £2,000 for DD307 and just under £3,000 for DD303.)

However, this is all just speculation. What I’ve not factored in is the disproportionately large cut that the OU is likely to suffer in its HEFCE grant allocation compared to many traditional universities. It was, of course, already suffering through the withdrawal of ELQ funding introduced by the last government (which David Willetts opposed in 2008) but is not going to be reversed.

It could also be possible that the OU decides to increase its fees beyond what it strictly needs to provide its current courses. After all, it will need to ensure that the perceived value of an OU degree is maintained in the HE market that the government has created, otherwise students won’t opt for it in the future – a £5,000 a year degree can’t possibly be as good as one costing £9,000 a year, surely? (Note: I might not actually believe that last sentence, but it’s pretty clear that some universities do.)

There are also the unanswered questions of whether OU students will in future be forced into accepting government loans for courses (even if, like me, you don’t want one) and so increase the headline cost of study still further (a loan at RPI+3% is not good value for someone with a good credit rating!); the continuing viability of some existing OU qualifications (for example, there’s still no word on if the social sciences faculty will be able to offer MSc/MA qualifications in the future); whether or not students embarking on (or part way through) study for their OU degree in 2012 will have their fees calculated on the current basis (as will happen for those on full-time courses) or if they’ll have to pay increased fees immediately … the list goes on.

The OU is a great institution. The standard of teaching and course materials has been far higher than almost everything I experienced on my first degree at Warwick University in the mid 1980s. But if you’re hoping simply to avoid higher fees post September 2012 by taking this route – beware. You won’t know the real costs until the spring of next year.

Why I agree with Nick. And Ed, Caroline and Nigel too.

I wasn’t going to write a post on the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, but given the generally poor way in which both campaigns have explained the choice, I’ve decided to stick my oar in.

You should know that I’m voting for a change to the AV system, but reluctantly. I’d like to see a fully proportional system such as the single transferable vote (STV) within multi-member constituencies but as that’s not on offer, the only decision that needs making on 5th May is whether AV is “better” than the current system. And my logic says that it is and in an important way. Let me explain why.

Under both the current system and AV, if a candidate manages to attract the support of 50% (+ 1 vote) of those who can be bothered to vote (and not spoil their paper), then they’re elected. In a contest where there are only two candidates, the current system of putting an X against your first choice therefore works.

The problem with this is that unlike the 1950 or 1960s, very few (if any) parliamentary contests are fought between two candidates. It’s not unusual for 4,5 or even 6 credible candidates to be fighting a constituency election. Under the current system, if there are 3 candidates, the winner needs just over 33.3% of the vote to be successful. If there are 4, just over 25%. With 5, just over 20%. And so on. So the question you need to ask yourself is:

“Is it fair that someone who can only attract 20-25% of the vote wins as of right?”

I think not.

AV resolves this issue by eliminating the least popular candidate (as expressed in 1st preference votes) from the count and redistributing the votes for them in accordance with the voter’s next available preference until someone has 50% (+ 1 vote) of the valid votes remaining. Voters don’t have to express a second or third preference at all if you really can’t stand anyone else on the ballot paper. But unless you’re a complete (political) party animal, that’s pretty rare these days.

And that’s it. It’s not about giving people more than one vote, just the assurance to the voter that we no longer have to try to second-guess the rest of the electorate and vote “tactically” to ensure that you have a chance of electing a candidate who you have at least some empathy with.

For the Conservatives amongst you: another name for AV is “instant runoff voting”. Runoff voting is what was used to elect David Cameron to the leadership of the Conservative party – in other words, a new round of voting takes place (with the lowest placed candidate excluded) until someone gains 50% (+ 1 vote). AV lets that happen in a way that means that we won’t spend the entire year voting as candidates are eliminated one by one but implements this method more efficiently by allowing the voter to express their preferences so that they can be taken into account, if necessary.

If the Conservative leadership election had been decided in the way that parliamentary elections currently are, then David Davis would have become Conservative leader, not David Cameron. It’s interesting that one of his criticisms of AV is that it is “not British”. What nonsense.

So that’s it. The choice is straightforward on 5th May – do you want to use a system that can potentially (and often does) elect candidates purely on the basis of the biggest minority winning (the current system) or one that guarantees that every winning candidate has a broader base of support if no single candidate manages to collect more than half of the first preference votes – AV?

It’s definitely not about whether you like or dislike Nick Clegg, what your local authority is doing, the coalition, the track record of devolved governments, tuition fees or anything else. If you want to protest about those things, do so in your local or national election or write to your elected representatives. Better still – get involved – whatever your political views.

And for me, that’s what a change to AV (and hopefully to STV in the long run) will promote – a greater plurality of views being able to be heard in British politics.

Lies, damned lies and social mobility statistics

A few days ago, when the government (and Nick Clegg in particular) was launching its  strategy for social mobility, there was a chart used that made me feel a little uneasy. I couldn’t initially put my finger on why that was the case, but it looked as if it supported the argument rather too well. The chart I’m talking about is reproduced below:

A problem of social mobility or regression towards the mean?
A problem of social mobility or regression towards the mean?

It was used to claim that initially better performing children from poorer families fall back compared with less well performing children from richer families as they get older and so justify action on social mobility. Without doubting for a moment that everyone should have equality of opportunity and be encouraged to be successful in life, somehow the chart looked a little bit suspicious to me.

Someone else had spotted a problem with it as well – a researcher from the business school at Warwick University. He pointed out what I’d been struggling towards recognising – it was more likely to be the result of a statistical phenomena known as regression towards the mean, rather than a genuine reflection of reality.

Regression towards the mean happens when you measure the performance of individuals at the extreme ends of two different groups. The most likely explanation for the pattern seen in the chart is that the good performances from both groups were over-estimates of the child’s ability. Over time, it’s therefore likely that a more realistic view of their performance is obtained through repeated testing – and this is never as good as their best performance that they were selected for right at the start of the process.

Similarly, those selected for particularly poor performances may just have been having an off-day (it happens with small children!) Over time, a more realistic view of their performance is also obtained through repeated testing – and this is never as bad as the performance that they were initially selected for.

Now, I have no doubt that the government’s social mobility strategy is needed and that the intentions behind it are honourable. But the misuse of statistics (and probably where no misuse is required) does nothing to further the cause of reform.

I could also argue that this incident provides a neat illustration as to why removing tuition fees and funding undergraduate courses at universities from general taxation to teach the sciences and social sciences should be seen as a priority …

16th April 2011

One further thing occurs to me this morning – how reliable is an assessment of a child’s performance on a test of ability or IQ at 22 months anyway? The methodological issues in undertaking such an assessment must be huge, be more a matter of subjective than objective measures and subject to a whole range of demand characteristics, from the expectations of the parents to the views of the  health worker performing the procedure.

Oh, go on then, say universities – Bar Chart Edition!

Despite @fourinten tweeting “Succinctly put” about last night’s post on why Vince Cable’s hope that students would be able to drive better value for money by shopping around for universities and comparing offers is a rather forlorn one, I thought of a far simpler way to make the same point on the train home in the form of a “Lib Dem Bar Chart”. Here it is:


Supply and Demand Bar Chart
Supply and Demand Bar Chart




Oh, go on then, say universities

I read with interest today about Vince Cable’s comments to university vice-chancellors that:

The biggest mistake a university could make is to underestimate its consumers.


Students will search for value for money and compare the offers of different universities.

He’s now just a small step away from suggesting that VCs are public enemy number one, joining bankers on the list of people he will no longer be sending Christmas cards to. I suggested this might be a likely strategy in a post at the start of March, when it began to become clear that the outcome of the tuition fees fiasco was that just about every single university would be charging the maximum amount. Even mid-ranking institutions like the University of Central Lancashire, whose VC was making soothing noises as late as the end of February to their local press about tuition fees, have now decided to try to charge the maximum £9,000.

Sadly, as I and many others have pointed out, the horse has now well and truly bolted. Without a rethink on a scale of what we’re seeing happening over the proposed NHS reforms, the universities will have to charge this amount – partly to cover the removal of £2.9bn per year of direct teaching funding from the HEFCE and partly to ensure that their institution is perceived to be excellent – “or seek to be in the same fee bracket as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial”, as the deputy chief executive of Exeter University so charmingly put it in his letter to current students at the start of March.

And if the majority of institutions are intent on charging the maximum, then the ability of the individual student to shop around for better “value for money” will be severely restricted, if not impossible.

I think the satirical (and very rude – so don’t click on the link if you’re easily offended) Daily Mash got it just about right today: Oh, go on then, say universities.

With respect, Dr. Cable, it’s now time for you and Mr. Willetts to rethink your approach. And quickly.

Claiming expenses

Earlier on today I put my expenses claim in at work for the last fortnight. I travel around quite a bit for my job and because of that, it’s not unusual for me or my colleagues to have claims of several hundred pounds outstanding each month. I thought I’d compare our expenses procedure to what I heard Roger Gale MP on BBC Radio 5 live today calling the “incredibly bureaucratic” regime that our parliamentarians are now subjected to by IPSA, the independent parliamentary standards authority.

He outlines their procedure as:

1. “You enter everything on a computer”

2. “Then you print it off”

3. “You then send in a paper version”

4. “You then send in the receipts”

5. “And eventually, you get paid”

This all seems unremarkable – and very much like our expenses procedure at work, with the exception that we also have a step 2a, requiring our expenses to be countersigned by two other people. I don’t believe our expenses procedure to be overly bureaucratic – in fact, everywhere I’ve worked in the last 15 or so years has operated in pretty much the same way. It seems to me to have the right level of checks and balances in it and because you know that you’re going to have to account for what you spend on the company’s behalf, it ensures you only spend what is absolutely necessary. It sounds exactly like the kind of expenses system our parliamentarians should use.

Carry on, IPSA.

University funding for novices

You know how it is – or maybe not – perhaps your lifeworld is a little different to mine 🙂 . You’re sitting in bed on a Sunday morning, surfing the blogs, and you come across something that is just too irresistible to pass up the opportunity of commenting on.

Last Sunday, I found an interesting article over on the “Politics for novices” blog, which suggested that the current changes to university funding will aid social change. I couldn’t resist commenting on it (you’ll have to follow the link if you want to read the article and what I said) and it’s provoked a lively debate between myself and the blog owner. Michael’s response to my original comment is in a follow-up post he made very early this morning and I’ve since commented on his response too (though at the time of writing it’s being held in his moderation queue).

If only all debate about university funding was quite so reasonable and civilised we might just get somewhere …

Are university Vice-Chancellors about to replace bankers as the new bogey men?

Following on from earlier announcements by Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial that they intend to charge the maximum possible tuition fees from 2013 for undergraduate courses of £9,000 per year, Exeter university has entered the fray today by indicating it will follow suit.

The Exeter announcement is important, as they are the first university outside of the “Russell Group” of self-proclaimed elite establishments to decide to do this. I’m hoping that BIS are looking on with a degree of alarm and concern about this development as it suggests that many universities will now do the same.

By dint of the way that the complicated funding maths works out, this development means that the taxpayer will be paying even more to fund university education in the future than under Willett’s and Cable’s over-optimistic projections that the average fees would end up around £7,500 per year and that “low-cost” subjects such as arts and humanities would be closer to £6,000 per year.

Remember that the introduction of the new funding arrangements were going to mean it costing the taxpayer more, not less, than the current arrangements during the period of the current comprehensive spending review (i.e. between now and 2015.) If the average fee is going to be closer to £8,000-£9,000 per year, then it will cost taxpayers more still. The universities get the money now, of course, not as the students pay it back, so it needs to be found from somewhere along with the interest that the government will incur borrowing it on our behalf. This is in addition to saddling the majority of students with the equivalent of an extra 9% tax bill (over earnings of £21,000 per year) for up to 30 years after graduation.

That 9% “graduate contribution” is significant. It will obviously reduce graduate disposable income and mean they won’t be spending it their local economies helping the business community to thrive and so create jobs. It also probably means that they won’t be saving towards their pensions either. I’m glad I’m probably not going to be alive (or at least, not be a taxpayer!) in 2060 to pick up that “little bill” from the welfare state.

So we already know that Willetts and Cable have been caught out. After all, if you tell someone they can charge “up to” an amount for a service that while not a monopoly is certainly one delivered by two or three cartels of universities, what cartel would say that they would charge less than that amount?

There’s also the prestige argument being advanced. If you charge less for something, it’s obviously not going to be perceived as being as good as the more expensive item. Reality is usually different of course – Apple iPads are expensive, certainly, but they’re not as good for the purposes I require, or as cheap, as (say) an Android tablet. However, UK universities seem to believe that they are all Apple iPads rather than Google Androids and that they need to be perceived in this way to be taken seriously on the international stage.

Whether or not university VCs become seen as the next “greedy bankers” will depend to a large extent on how slickly Willetts and Cable can argue the case that they simply don’t need to put their fees up this much to replace the direct funding from government they will lose. They’ve done a pretty poor job of this so far, of course. However, there’s certainly a chance that the coalition will be able to portray the £9,000 a year universities and their VCs in this way. Public anger, whipped up by the usual suspects in the media is an easy thing to re-direct when organisations are apparently attempting to get away with shady pricing practices.

It’s interesting that the registrar and deputy CEO of Exeter University in his email to current students today doesn’t attempt to justify the £9,000 a year price tag for undergraduate courses by saying it’s necessary to fill a funding gap. Instead, he concludes:

I am sure you will share our confidence that Exeter should seek to be in the same fee bracket as universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial, which have already signalled their intent to charge the full amount.

I sense that a whole new set of battle lines in the funding debate for higher education are about to be drawn. It will not end well for anyone.


I’m mystified – does the OU’s internal mail system not work?

On 15th January I wrote two letters to the Open University. One was to the Vice Chancellor, the other was to the Dean of Social Sciences. Both were almost identical in their content. I asked the VC what the plan was for postgraduate courses in general at the OU post-Browne and I asked the Dean specifically about social sciences postgraduate course provision. I also asked them both for advice on where, as a distance learner, I could study over a 3 to 4 year period for an MSc in psychological research methods. (Hint: there isn’t anywhere else to the best of my knowledge other than the OU that offers this.)

At the time of writing these letters, the statement on the OU website was that the May 2011 intake was the last for MSc qualifications in the social sciences. This original statement has now been back-peddled a little to say that the university as a whole is now in the process of re-considering postgraduate provision for 2012 onwards and that they’d really like to run a postgraduate social science programme as part of it, if funding allows.

Now, the VC and the Dean may not be able to tell me or anyone else very much more than that at the moment, given the complete horlicks that BIS (the department for Business, Innovation and Skills) appear to be making of even understanding that (a) part-time students exist and (b) represent a substantial minority of people undertaking tertiary education. (“Part-time study? Distance learning? Life-long learning? No, sorry minister, run that one by me again …”)

But it would be courteous to at least reply saying that they can’t really tell me anything if that is the situation. It’s now twice that I’ve written to the VC in the last six months and received no acknowledgement, let alone a reply. Even my MP has managed to find time in her schedule to reply to my concerns!

I’m mystified. Is there a problem with the internal post at Walton Hall? It’s the only explanation I can think of, because surely neither the VC or Dean would ignore the legitimate concerns of their own students, would they?

Will it still be possible to pay in advance for OU modules next year?

I recently tweeted the OU’s “Four in Ten” campaign with a question asking about the current situation of England-based students who were studying with the OU who wanted to carry on paying for their modules in advance, as many of us do at present.

They answered this question in a blog post yesterday. Yet again the answer seems to demonstrate the lamentable way in which the 40% of us in part-time tertiary education are being misunderstood and/or ignored by Willetts and Cable.

This is the comment I submitted in return, after a contributor called Tina had vented before I had had a chance to!

Dear Four in Ten,

Thanks for the reply to my tweet. Sadly, it confirms what I thought the situation was. As Tina points out, it’s not an answer to the question that I asked, but it is an honest statement of what the current “thinking” from government is.

My real concern is that despite the campaigning activities of four in ten and the OU, the responsible ministers at BIS (David Willetts and Vince Cable) really don’t understand what motivates people to study part-time.

As Tina says, if it becomes no longer possible to study modules or qualifications in a “debt-free” way, then it will severely impact my desire to ever want to study anything with the OU ever again, which would be a real shame. I suspect many of us who are in full-time employment like myself and are studying for “fun” would vote with our feet – and find alternative ways of satisfying our quest for knowledge.

Some of the US distance learning colleges are starting to look very attractive to me in this regard …