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.

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.


Last year there was a 26.6% decline in the numbers of part-time university students

… starting courses  and the decline is 37% from just two years ago. David Willetts is apparently so concerned that he’s asked Eric Thomas, the Universities UK president and Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, to investigate the causes of this decline and to report back in the autumn.

I suspect Mr. Thomas will come to the conclusion that a number of factors are responsible. Here are my thoughts as to what he’ll find.

My first observation is that the decline in part-time student numbers seems to mirror the overall decline in mature students applying to go to university since the new fees regime was introduced. Although tuition fee loans are now available for the first time for part-time study (regardless of age), they’re only available if you’re not studying for an equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ). I suspect that the tripling of undergraduate fees has put off just about everyone that falls into this category. Something will need to be done (loans for all?) if we’re going to enable people to re-skill and retrain through higher education as they go through their working life. And, of course, working lives for most people are going to become much longer, whether we want them to or not.

Secondly, the general economic situation can’t be helping those who want to study part-time. I suspect that a number of employers are putting pressure on their staff to work longer hours (particularly if they’re salaried with a “no paid overtime” clause in their contracts) with those in part-time jobs having to work longer hours or take more than one to make ends meet. Working longer hours clearly eats into time available for part-time study – especially if you have a family to look after as well.

Thirdly, I wonder how many employers are still choosing to sponsor their staff through part-time higher education? This has obviously become more expensive for employers with the rise in fees, but I also suspect that the political climate which is rewarding companies that set up apprenticeship schemes is also having an impact in diverting funds away from sponsoring employees through part-time university courses.

Finally, the rise of MOOCs may well have something to do with the decline as well. For example, many Open University students used to take courses purely for personal improvement. While this was a reasonably priced option for some (with a 60 credit course taken over 9 months costing around £700-£800), the current £2,500 fee for new students must have driven many of these students onto these free offerings. Some of these offerings are better than others, however.

I’m not sure that Mr Thomas really needs months to investigate the cause of the decline – and I’m not sure that David Willetts really needs him to either. Reviews of this kind are usually simply a substitute for action, if you believe that a decline of more than 80,000 part-time students per year in two years is something to be worried about.