How have OU student numbers been affected by the £2,500 module fee in England?

Following the news last week that enrolments to HE courses by part-time students had fallen by 26.6% in the year after the introduction of the new tuition fees regime, I decided to do a little bit of digging around to see if I could discover how the Open University had been affected.

All OU students are counted as part-time, even if some brave folk do decide to take on 120 credits in a year – equivalent to the workload of a full-time student elsewhere. I managed to complete 90 credits of study in 2011 alongside a full-time job, which I’m the first to admit now was utter madness. But I did survive!

Anyway, first stop was the Open University’s Senate minutes. Sadly, they’re not particularly helpful in determining the actual numbers of students the OU has managed to recruit or retain – with opaque phrases such as “The outcome had been that new regime students for October 2012 in England were 96% of scenario 1” being used (From minute 4.6, 17th October 2012).

However, you do get the impression from reading the Senate minutes that whatever their planning assumptions were for the first year of £2,500 fees per 60 credits (in England), they must have just about met their recruitment targets. That’s good, because if they have it means that they’ve probably got their fee level about right to sustain the university moving forwards, however unpalatable to potential students it may be.

So my next stop was the OU Student’s Association Central Executive Committee (CEC) papers and minutes. These are equally opaque – at least, until you look in detail at the individual papers discussed – and specifically the reports on the state of OUSA Assemblies.

These would appear to provide an indication of the total number of OU students (as student numbers are used for budgeting purposes) – and better still, these figures are broken down by OU region. This means that it is possible to work out the effect of fee changes (or no fee changes) in the student numbers for England (and its regions), Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Europe. They’re only an indication, as not all OU students are necessarily members of the association (although as it’s an opt-out rather than opt-in arrangement I’m willing to guess that only a very small fraction of OU students ever opt-out) and they do seem to record numbers somewhat lower than the “almost 250,000” students that the OU has consistently claimed for the last few years – for example, in the press release issued on higher education and funding policy issued on 8th March.

In addition, there has been a shift in many OU module start dates from October to February which I suspect also confounds the numbers, making direct comparisons between years rather difficult. But even taking that into account, the trend does appear to be significantly downwards – and more markedly so in England (where higher fees for new students but not continuing ones are now in place) and in Continental Europe (where last year, the OU took a decision to stop directly employing locally based staff).

So as I’m unsure of the validity of the numbers presented in the OUSA CEC reports in determing the precise size of the OU student body, I’m not going to re-publish them here. However, if you’re a current (or recent) OU student, you’ll be able to dig them out for yourself if you really want to. Follow the link to the Student Association Forums from StudentHome, click on the “OUSA information forums” link and then onwards into “OUSA Information”. The minutes, papers and appendices for all of the CEC meetings since May 2011 are available waiting for you.

Posts Tagged with…

Reader Comments

  1. Dave

    Good to see you writing on subject of Fees and consequence for Open University numbers. I for one dropped out of taking course modules even though O.U guaranteed existing fees. I had no intention of continuing on a tread mill of modules without a break from study. The results would have been full fees. My studies were purely for personal satisfaction not to follow a career. So the cost to return analysis indicated poor value for money. As many may be aware some US university’s are providing free modules to those willing to study on line. SO THE COST TO RETURN ANALYSIS 100%. My belief is that the Open Universities future is bleak. I valued my studies with the O.U over the years.

  2. alt_uk2000

    I was studying with the OU for personal interest, but after completing a certificate (just before the new fees), I decided to call it quits. I can’t justify the cost anymore for a course that is distance learning, yet charge nearly similar fees to a brick university. I would had loved to carry onto a Natural Sciences or Psychology degree but its not cost effective anymore.

  3. Sarah

    I completed a degree with the OU and loved it, and I would have completed a certificate with them (did two modules towards it) but I’ve given up as I know I won’t be able to continue studying with them for pleasure anymore. I’d done all of the modules I liked, and would have waited for more exciting short courses to arrive but it appears they’re stopping anything I was even vaguely interested in. Shame really. I know I could get a loan, but I’ve worked so hard to get my education whilst staying debt free (undergrad at OU and postgrad at a brick uni) I don’t want to give that up.

  4. Rob

    I agree with the above comments as they apply to me largely. It gets worse. My modules end their life from next year to 2019 for all courses they count towards. Going to another University for online study might be an option if I can get some kind of credit transfer but it looks bleak.

  5. Tony

    Good to see an attempt to dig into this – I can only imagine that numbers must have been dented at least. This does not represented a modest hike in prices – it is a significant rise. As someone who was planning to study with the OU I now have to seriously consider whether this represents value for money, and can be justified (I am studying for pleasure). I do think it’s sad that a number of people who want to better themselves (and thereby contribute to the economy) will now be priced out of the market, and potentially will remain in economically less productive roles.

    There’s a more worrying aspect here though, which was hinted at by Sarah, and that’s the termination of modules. I could understand this if replacements were already in place – but it seems modules are discontinued before anyone is aware of what will replace them – if anything. If you look at the Mathematics pathway document produced by the OU for starts since Feb 2014 you will see it’s invalid – there’s at least one specified module that won’t actually exist at the point indicated on the Pathway! Very frustrating. This doesn’t bode well or inspire confidence – which you really want to have when handing over such vast sums. I’ve contacted the OU about this and several other anomalies, so I will wait to see what they have to say about it.

Your thoughts?