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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Free University for the Third Age

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I have spent the weekend at a staff development event at the Open University. The theme of the conference was about responding to change in the new higher education landscape, as the institution tries to predict and prepare for the impact of increased tuition fees.

As Donald Rumsfeld infamously said about a different but similarly disastrous policy, there seem to be known knowns, known unknowns and, mostly, unknown unknowns. Frankly, nobody at the OU - as at many other universities - seems to have a very good idea about what is going to happen next. The OU is raising its fees for a typical half-time course from around £700 to £2500 (or £5000 for full time study). This big hike actually compares well with conventional universities, which will be charging around £8000 fees plus living expenses. Undoubtedly, though, we will lose many of our casual students who dip into OU modules out of interest. Will this loss be compensated for by traditional, younger students looking for a cheaper alternative to university?

This is the balance that the OU is poised between. For the sake of my job, I am hoping that it will fall favourably towards the latter. However, one of my colleagues made a very good point about one thing we could do in order to bolster our student numbers. For the first time, provided that they do not already have a first degree, part time students will be allowed to apply for loans, with no up front cost and no payback until they earn £21 000 a year. The cliched - and out of date - impression of the OU is that it is populated by pensioners with too much time but a thirst for knowledge; in fact, the average age for OU students is 32. However, perhaps it is precisely the pensioners who we should be targeting.

There is no upper age limit of eligibility for loans. Provided that they do not have a first degree, a pensioner is perfectly entitled to apply for one. However, a pensioner will never have to pay back the loans because repayments are deducted from salary. Hey presto! In the glorious new fees regime, the government just gifted the leisured elderly another free cultural perk, just like the TV licence. It is a big loophole in the system that the grinches of the granny tax do not seem to have noticed - though this will only last until the next election when the student loan book will probably be privatised.

Frankly, I am quite happy with the present scenario, not only for the sake of my job, but also because as a lecturer at an open university I am more than happy to have the opportunity to teach those at the other end of life to my young self (I had a fascinating 91 year old last year).

In all seriousness, though, this does serve to highlight the unfairness and illogicality of the tuition fee system that the government has created. We need to encourage young people to go to university so as to develop a modern economy - an economy that will need to pay, through taxes, for the increasing cost of welfare for the elderly. Yet the young are the very people who pay most for their education. Those who are, economically speaking, past their sell by date get an education that they do not practically need, for absolutely nothing.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:40 pm


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting article Ali - I, too, hope that the OU offers favourable odds, especially for the sake of my own employment!

With the new fee structure in mind, do you think English will suffer at a time when there is an emphasis on skills or subjects with, shall we say, a less artistic bent?

Ed Hadley

8:04 pm  
Blogger Alistair Brown said...

Hi Ed,

I think that Arts and Humanities will certainly be hardest hit. On the other hand, I understand that A&H is the largest faculty at the OU, which gives it some additional leeway against fluctuations.

But nationally the early indications, about which I posted here - http://thepequodblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/university-applications-drop-in-english.html - are for a roughly 10% drop in A&H. From the conference it seems like the OU are working along a similar hunch for all subjects.

My guess (or naive optimism) is that English will be most robust of the A&H subjects, because of its transferable skills and good employability statistics. But students will only take this up if they know about these, which is where we're reliant on careers and other information services giving students an accurate picture when they choose courses.

We live in hope!


8:23 pm  

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