In the year that the Open University celebrates its 50th anniversary, the annual higher education student statistics release from HESA (*) paints a gloomy picture for lifelong learners. Overall part-time student enrolments continue to decline, but have been offset by older learners deciding to study full-time. This shift could be due to the unequal treatment of student loans for part and full-time students, but the data doesn’t exist to be certain.
The main part-time HE provider in the UK, the Open University, continues to see a year on year fall in enrolments. This decline dates back to 2010/11. Numbers have fallen by a massive 91,770 from the peak in 2009/10 – approximately 44%. This year’s fall amounts to another 3,500 lost enrolments, resulting in a year on year decline of approximately 3%.
After a turbulent 2018 which saw vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks resign, the Open University enters its 50th anniversary year looking for a replacement.
As a proud OU alumnus, the continuing decline of what should be a thriving institution continues to enrage me. Poor decisions made under the last three governments (Labour, Coalition and Conservative-DUP) are the main cause of the decline.
(*) HESA statistical releases are made under the creative commons attribution 4.0 international (CC BY 4.0) licence. The full release for 2017/18 (supported by interactive query tools) is available here.
Shortly after I’d been discharged from hospital last September, I made a decision to attend the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychologists annual conference (DOPconf to its friends) in Chester. It was held last week, 9th to 11th January 2019, so it was a good recovery milestone to aim for. Fortunately I just about made my target – physically and mentally – even though I didn’t manage to attend all of the sessions I’d optimistically put into my diary at the start of the week.
It was particularly good to meet a number of Leicester and OU psychology alumni again. One of the media sensations of the week was the study published about the benefits of singing at work, carried out by Joanna Foster for her Leicester MSc. However, I get the feeling that if I joined a workplace choir other people may not find my dulcet tones beneficial …
The sessions I did attend at the conference were excellent. These were a few of my personal highlights.
Evidence-based (change) management
The first keynote of the conference was given by Professor Denise Rousseau of Carnegie Mellon University. EBMgt is defined as being the practice of making organisational decisions, in relation to a claim or hypothesis, based on the combination of :
Scientific principles and knowledge
Valid / relevant organisational and business facts
Professional expertise and critical thinking
Stakeholder concerns, implications and ethics
Denise argues that few organisations pay attention to the quality of the data on which they base their decisions. Fewer still assess the impact of the decisions they take. Denise suggests that the 6A decision-making process seen in medicine (ask, acquire, appraise, aggregate, apply, assess) should be used – on both the problem and solutions – to improve outcomes.
Solving the right problem(s) and considering multiple solutions (rather than asking the question “should we do x or nothing”) is more likely to result in effective change. Furthermore, systematic reviews demonstrate that a bundle of interventions rather than implementing a single “silver bullet” is best.
A paper presented by Andrew Parsons from the University of Hertfordshire. It was of personal interest to me as I’m in the process of returning to work after treatment. Self-report questionnaires to measure work engagement, quality of working life and psychological capital, plus semi-structured interviews analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis were used in the study. It was unsurprising, if comforting, that measures of psychological capital were strongly correlated with quality of working life scores.
Of most interest to me were the reports of interview participants talked about the importance of developing a “new model of me” and the resources that either helped or hindered their response to events as they returned to work. The “new normal or new me” theme is one I’ve heard many MCL survivors talk about. However, I’m not convinced that the experience of treatment has changed me all that much – at least, not yet.
The influence of work on personality development and change through life
This keynote was presented by Professor Stephen Woods of the University of Surrey. I became familiar with some of his work while studying for my masters and it was good to put a face to the name. He presented evidence which questions the long-held view of many psychologists that personality traits remain fixed and stable during adulthood. Instead, he suggested that they were dynamic and contingent on the work context. The social constructionist and critical psychologist in me grinned broadly as he concluded his talk.
Cynicism in organisations – the antithesis of thriving?
Having confessed that I’m not convinced by personality psychometrics, I also admit that I’m not convinced by so-called authentic leadership. I once wrote that adopting authentic leadership would lead to a highly dysfunctional organisation and burned-out individuals. I still stand by every word of my argument.
It was therefore fascinating to hear Zoe Sanderson from Bristol University compare the traditional view of organisational cynicism with that from critical management theory. Traditional organisational psychology usually constructs cynicism at work as being wholly negative and coming from the individual. “Cynicism can take down an entire organisation”.
Critical management studies takes a different perspective and argues that cynicism is a predictable outcome of many working environments. Furthermore, cynicism can be seen as employees protecting their identity. This helps to reduce any cognitive dissonance stemming from organisational propaganda, enabling them to remain engaged and productive. Zoe’s work on cynicism is at an exploratory stage and I look forward to seeing it progressing.
How do you spot an organisational psychopath … and what do you do next?
Having written earlier that I’m not much of a fan of personality psychometrics, I do love ‘dark triad’ papers. Lorraine Falvey said that the literature suggests there is an increasing level of malevolent behaviour reported at work. Her personal frustration is that most studies into organisational psychopathy either use students as participants, or cover a very narrow workforce, such as police officers. Her study used a qualitative, thematic analysis of interviews with 15 experienced, cross-industry sector participants. It suggests that there is a spectrum of potentially malevolent behaviours – from influencing, through manipulation, to verbal and physical threats. Lorraine argued that organisational leaders need to:
Be aware of the shadow you cast as a leader – it is an important factor in what others consider to be acceptable behaviour.
Think about the unintended consequences of (poorly designed) rewards.
Be clear about individual roles and responsibilities, as clarity seems to mitigate poor behaviour. Matrix organisations are therefore seen as being at particular risk.
Leading with purpose: How to lift people, performance and the planet, profitably
An excellent interactive workshop to end the conference, run by Sarah Rozenthuler and Victoria Hurth. We were given an overview of what purpose in business is, and how purpose is distinct from corporate social responsibility, sustainability, mission and vision. Command and control vs purpose-led leadership paradigms were discussed, and the four capacities necessary for purpose-led leadership defined. From my own business value consulting perspective, the tangible benefits claimed for this approach look extraordinary and are worthy of urgent further investigation.
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%
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.
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%.
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.
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.
I 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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!