A photo of the Berrill Building at The Open University's Walton Hall campus

Open University announces radical reinvention

The Open University, approaching its 50th anniversary, is launching a radical overhaul to ensure its readiness for the next half century.

The University is conducting a review of every aspect of its operations  from the student experience to its teaching and research.  A major savings and reinvestment plan will recreate the University, making it digital by design, and placing the needs of students and the wider economy at the centre of everything it does.

Announcing the changes, Vice-Chancellor Peter Horrocks said: “We were disruptive and revolutionary in our use of technology in 1969, and as we approach our 50th year, we intend to be disruptive and revolutionary again, to transform the life chances of tens of thousands of future learners.”

At a time of unprecedented change and recognising future economic challenges, the OU has a crucial role to play in helping employers and employees respond to the rapid rise in automation which is expected to sweep away millions of existing jobs. The rising generation of students may be the first who routinely have to retrain and improve their skills throughout their careers to adapt to a rapidly evolving economy.

Transforming the OU and supporting our students

The OU transformation programme will deliver over the next two years:

  • World leading part-time distance learning and teaching with digital innovation at its heart
  • A streamlined curriculum shaped to students’ needs and adaptable to change
  • High quality research focused closely on the teaching curriculum to maximise its impact
  • Close links to employers to ensure the curriculum reflects the skills they need
  • A redesigned University free from duplication, overlapping responsibilities, unnecessary bureaucracy and inefficiencies which have developed over decades

Students will have greater choice over when they start courses and the pace of their study. They will be able to work flexibly on screen, tablet or mobile – and they will be more closely supported than ever by tutors delivering a hands-on, highly personalised education.

The proposed changes will require major investment in technology, in training for our staff, in redeveloping our curriculum and in reorganising the university.

From the University of the Air to the University of the Cloud

Open University Vice-Chancellor Peter HorrocksVice-Chancellor of The Open University, Peter Horrocks, said:

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud – a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy.

“A revitalised and redesigned OU should be at the heart of the digital revolution by becoming a leading exponent of the use of digital technology for teaching and supporting students; by helping educate the digital citizens of the future; by undertaking research that can help equip society for a digital world.

The OU will still be the OU. We will retain our core mission of offering higher education to all, regardless of background or previous qualifications. But we will be delivering it in a different way, matching future needs to future technology.

The transformation process

The proposals are in part a response to financial challenges facing The Open University. Funding changes introduced since 2007 by successive UK governments have hit hard the number of part-time students entering higher education in England. Student numbers at the OU have fallen by almost a third in the past decade and that has had a significant impact on income. At the same time, fixed costs have remained relatively static and in a changing market place competitors are “cherry picking” popular and profitable courses.

The transformation process will put the OU on a sustainable financial footing. It is expected to achieve savings in the order of £100 million from the OU’s annual budget of around £420 million. It is intended that more than half of that sum will be reinvested in building a University fit for the next 50 years.

All parts of the University’s operations are in scope. Among the issues to be tackled are duplication and inefficiency resulting from years of piecemeal development, a problem faced by most universities; courses on the curriculum which were once popular but which now struggle to cover costs and others which have never attracted many students; research costs which outstrip grant income.

Change on this scale will inevitably impact on staff because staff make up two-thirds of the OU’s operating costs. The proposed transformation in teaching, research, IT systems and the running of the University will inevitably mean that the number and types of roles will change. In coming years, fewer people will be needed overall. Detailed work will be carried out over the next six months to clarify the figures and the scale of change.

The OU is the only university to operate across four nations, with student numbers in Scotland, Wales and Ireland having grown and funding from the national Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remaining stable due to different higher education policies and funding mechanisms.

More information is available in Frequently Asked Questions.