Tucked away on the OU platform website this week was an article written by Dr Petrina Stevens (the OU community representative on Senate). The full text of the article is available here and appears to be a brief summary of the key findings of the long-awaited postgraduate review, presented to Senate by Professor Sharon Ding.
I’m all too aware of the difficulties of getting the gist of what I hope was an incredibly detailed presentation and fiery debate into a brief article. However if what has been reported is an accurate reflection of the postgraduate review then I’m very disappointed indeed.
I have two main bones of contention with the article. First of all is the implication (presumably from the postgraduate review) that because some people don’t understand that Open University degrees are every bit as hard-won and rigorous in their academic standards as those awarded by other institutions, there must be something wrong with OU degrees per-se.
… the OU is fighting a perception by some people with no OU experience, that it offers degrees which have less value than those from more conventional and established universities. In order to be competitive and to attract students, the OU is changing the identity of its taught Masters degrees.
This kind of analysis is a classic example of mistaking a correlation (people who haven’t experienced the OU for themselves think its degrees are somehow not as good as other equivalents) with cause and effect (because people think this it means that the degrees really aren’t as good as those from elsewhere).
Even if, for the sake of argument, OU degrees were not every bit as good as those from elsewhere, I’m unconvinced that simply saying “everything is new and shiny now” is the right way to address such a perception.
The OU’s current marketing material doesn’t pander to these myths:
How highly are OU degrees rated?
Very. And not just academically. When potential employers see you have an OU qualification, it’s immediately obvious that you have other skills that candidates with non-OU qualifications might not – such as commitment and motivation. Students with the OU often have juggled many other commitments at the same time as studying and many employers have studied with the OU.
We have more than 22,000 students studying at postgraduate level, many of them working towards a masters degree – e.g. an MA, MSc or MBA. We also offer PhDs and Research degrees (full or part time).
However, it’s the assertion that the current OU taught Masters programmes:
… by design these degrees omitted one element, and that was the chance for students to search out relevant and respected research (‘found’ material) to support their studies
which has annoyed me the most. This is a factually incorrect statement as well one which is potentially damaging to the reputation of the OU and of the students who have taken these qualifications.
Leaving the Masters degrees aside for a moment, my psychology BSc required independent research on both of the level 3 modules (DD303 and DD307). Even a couple of the level 2 modules (ED209 and DXR222) expected some of this too. It would therefore be very strange if at the Masters level all thought of independent research was simply abandoned!
And indeed, the (now withdrawn) taught Masters in psychological research methods certainly expected a significant level of independent research (I know, because I have a copy of the prospectus!) Even examining a few of the descriptions for currently available OU Masters programmes, it is obvious that self-guided research is almost invariably a significant component.
MA in English: “If you wish to develop your research and analytical skills and upgrade your qualifications the MA in English course is for you.”
MA in Childhood and Youth: “…you will choose either a small research project around a topic relevant to the module or a literature review. ”
Master of Laws: “Through your study you will have the opportunity to enhance your legal research skills and develop expertise in a chosen field.”
MSc in Engineering: “This MSc in Engineering course builds on previous study and offers you an opportunity to research an engineering topic in-depth.”
MSc in Technology Management: “… you can take Research project (T802), where the production of a dissertation will develop your academic research skills.”
I therefore really hope that this is a “rogue” article and that contrary to the impression it gives, the OU have been quietly investing their efforts in genuinely understanding how to best improve their taught Masters programmes.