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.