Open University

Open University
Open University is also the name of other institutions. See Distance education or the Open Universities category for a list.
The Open University
Motto Learn and Live
Established 1969
Type Public
Chancellor Lord Puttnam of Queensgate CBE[1]
Vice-Chancellor Martin G. Bean[2]
Students 168,850[3]
Undergraduates 151,385[3]
Postgraduates 17,465[3]
Location Milton Keynes (main campus) & regional centres, United Kingdom
Campus Distance learning
48 hectares (0.48 km2)[4]
Affiliations University Alliance
Association of Commonwealth Universities
European Association of Distance Teaching Universities
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
corporate logo

The Open University (commonly Open University or its initialism OU, but officially "The" is part of its name) is a distance learning and research[5] university founded by Royal Charter in the United Kingdom. The University is funded by a combination of student fees, contract income, and allocations for teaching and research by the higher education funding bodies in each of the four countries of the UK. It is notable for having an open entry policy, i.e. students' previous academic achievements are not taken into account for entry to most undergraduate courses. The majority of the OU's undergraduate students are based in the United Kingdom and principally study off-campus, but many of its courses (both undergraduate and postgraduate) can be studied off-campus anywhere in the world.[6] There are a number of full-time postgraduate research students based on the 48 hectare university campus[7][8] where they use the OU facilities for research, as well as more than 1000 members of academic and research staff and over 2500 administrative, operational and support staff.[9]

The OU was established in 1969 and the first students enrolled in January 1971.[10] The University administration is based at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, but has regional centres in each of its thirteen regions around the United Kingdom. It also has offices and regional examination centres in most other European countries. The University awards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, as well as non-degree qualifications such as diplomas and certificates, or continuing education units.

With more than 250,000 students enrolled, including around 32,000 aged under 25[11] and more than 50,000 overseas students,[12] it is the largest academic institution in the United Kingdom and Europe by student number, and qualifies as one of the world's largest universities. Since it was founded, more than 1.5 million students have studied its courses.[12] It was rated top university in England and Wales for student satisfaction in the 2005[13] and 2006[14] United Kingdom government national student satisfaction survey, and second in the 2007 survey.[15]

The Open University is also one of only three United Kingdom higher education institutions to gain accreditation in the United States of America by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education,[16] an institutional accrediting agency, recognized by the United States Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.[17]



The Open University was founded by the then serving Labour Party government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, based on the vision of Michael Young (later Lord Young of Dartington). Planning commenced in 1965 under Minister of State for Education Jennie Lee, who set up a planning committee consisting of university vice-chancellors, educationalists and television broadcasters, chaired by Sir Peter Venables. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Assistant Director of Engineering at the time James Redmond, had obtained most of his qualifications at night school, and his natural enthusiasm for the project did much to overcome the technical difficulties of using television to broadcast teaching programmes.

Walter Perry (later Lord Perry) was appointed the OU's first vice-chancellor in January 1969, and its Foundation Secretary was Anastasios Christodoulou. The election of the new Conservative Party serving government under Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970 led to budget cuts under Chancellor of the Exchequer Iain Macleod (who had earlier called the idea of an Open University "blithering nonsense").[18] However, the OU accepted its first 25,000 students in 1971, adopting a radical open admissions policy. At the time, the total student population of conventional universities in the United Kingdom was around 130,000.

Organisation and administration


Berrill Building, built in 1997, forms the new entrance to the 48-hectare Open University campus at Walton Hall in Milton Keynes, England. The modern 7,500m2 building contains office space for staff, visitor reception, conference and exhibition facilities, a cafeteria, and a 250-seat lecture theatre.

The OU provides university education to those wishing to pursue higher education on a part-time and/or distance learning basis, including people with health disabilities, who are officially a priority group for the university, nearly 13,000 OU students have health disabilities.[12] The British Government has also tasked the Open University to continue the work of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) when it was dissolved. The CNAA formerly awarded degrees at the polytechnics which have since become universities.


The majority of staff are part-time Associate Lecturers and, as of the 2009–2010 academic year, there are almost 8,000 working for the OU. There are also 1,286 salaried academic employees, 1,931 others who are also academic-related, and 1,902 support staff (including secretaries and technicians).[12] Salaries are the main cost in The Open University's accounts, claiming over £275 million for the 2009–2010 academic year.[12] In 2010 the OU became one of the Sunday Times' Best Places to Work in the Public Sector.

Academic divisions


The University has Faculties of Arts; Education & Language Studies; Health and Social Care; Law; Mathematics, Computing and Technology; Science; Social Science; and Business and Law. The new Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology (created from the former Faculties of Mathematics and Computing and Faculty of Technology) was formed on 1 October 2007.

Business school

The OU Business School is the largest provider of MBAs in the UK, producing more graduates than all the rest of the business schools in the UK put together. Its MBA has gained triple accreditation by AMBA, EQUIS and AACSB.[19]

Although the majority of students at the Business School are in the UK, many of the modules are also available throughout most of the world. Students study via distance learning for a Certificate or Diploma in Management and MBA programmes. A number of modules have a compulsory residential school which students must attend. The faculty also offers Honours and Foundation degrees in Business Studies and Leadership & Management.

The first Diploma modules were developed from 1983; however the School did not become a separate entity until 1988, when development of the first MBA modules was started. The first MBA students were enrolled in 1989, and the School almost immediately became the largest business school in Europe.

Academic profile

Teaching methods

A local Open University centre in Leeds.

The OU uses a variety of methods for distance learning, including written and audio materials, the Internet, disc-based software and television programmes on DVD. Course-based television broadcasts by the BBC, which started on 3 January 1971, ceased on 15 December 2006.[20] Materials are composed of originally-authored work by in-house and external academic contributors, and from third-party materials licensed for use by OU students. For most modules, students are supported by tutors ("Associate Lecturers") who provide feedback on their work and are generally available to them at face-to-face tutorials, by telephone, and/or on the Internet. A number of short courses worth ten credits are now available that do not have an assigned tutor but offer an online conferencing service (Internet Forum) where help and advice is offered through conferencing "Moderators".

Some modules have mandatory day schools. These are day-long sessions which a student must attend in order to pass the module. One example of such a module is the K301 – Advanced Certificate in Health Promotion – which has two mandatory day schools/workshops, focusing on communication skills, counselling and practical issues, related to health promotion. Nevertheless, it is possible to seek excusal upon the basis of ill-health (or other extenuating circumstances), and many courses have no mandatory face-to-face component.

Similarly, many modules have traditionally offered week long summer schools offering an opportunity for students to remove themselves from the general distractions of their life and focus on their study for a short time.

Over the past ten years the University has adopted a policy of separating residential modules from distance-taught modules. Exemption from attendance at residential schools, always as an Alternative Learning Experience (ALE), is sometimes available for disabled students and others who find it impossible to attend in person (See "Qualifications-Undergraduate" section.)

The OU now produces mainstream television and radio programming aimed at bringing learning to a wider audience. Most of this programming, including series such as Rough Science and "Battle of the Geeks", are broadcast at peak times, while older programming is carried in the BBC Learning Zone. But in 2004 the OU announced it was to stop its late night programmes on BBC2, and the last such programme was broadcast at 5.30am on 16 December 2006. The OU now plans to focus on mainstream programmes.

Teaching at the OU has been rated as "excellent"[21] by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The English national survey of student satisfaction has twice put the Open University in first place.

In October 2006 the OU joined the Open educational resources movement with the launch of OpenLearn. A growing selection of current and past distance learning course materials will be released for free access, including downloadable versions for educators to modify (under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence), plus free collaborative learning-support tools.

The OU is researching the use of virtual worlds in teaching and learning, and has two main islands in Second Life. These islands are called Open University island[22] and OUtopia village.[23] They are separated by a third region "OU Ocean." In May 2009 these regions formed the basis of a case study[24] by Linden Lab, the company which owns Second Life.

As of mid 2010, the University led the list of contributing universities in the number of downloads of its material from the educational resources site iTunes U, with downloads of over 20 million [25]

Assessment methods

Open University modules are often assessed using an equal weighting of examinations and coursework. The coursework component normally takes the form of between two and seven tutor marked assignments (TMAs) and, occasionally, may also include up to six multiple-choice or "missing word" 100-question computer marked assignments (CMAs). The examinable component is usually a proctored three-hour paper regardless of the size of the module (although on some modules it can be up to three three-hour papers[26]), but an increasing number of modules instead have an EMA (End of Module Assessment) which is similar to a TMA, in that it is completed at home, but is regarded as an exam for grading purposes.

Modules results are sometimes issued on a graded basis, consisting of pass grades 1 (threshold 85%,a distinction), 2 (70–84%), 3 (55–69%) & 4 (40–54%), and fail (below 40%). This grade is calculated as the lower of the overall continuous assessment score (OCAS) and overall examination score (OES).

These grades can be weighted[27] according to their level, and combined to calculate the classification of a degree. An undergraduate degree will weight level 3 modules twice as much as level 2, and in postgraduate programmes all M level modules are equally weighted.



Open University modules have associated with them a number of Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) credits – usually 30 or 60 – depending on the quantity of the material in the module and a level (1, 2, 3, or 4) corresponding to the complexity, with 120 points roughly equating to the year of study for a full-time student.

The OU offers a large number of undergraduate qualifications, including certificates, diplomas, and Bachelors degrees, based on both level and quantity of study. An OU undergraduate degree requires 300 (or 360 for honours) CATS credits.

Students generally do not undertake more than 60 credits per year, meaning that an undergraduate degree will take typically six years to complete. With the exception of some degrees in fast moving areas (such as computing) there is generally no limit on the time which a student may take. Students need special permission to take more than 120 points (equivalent to full-time study) at any time;[28] such permission is not usually granted.

Originally the BA was the only undergraduate degree, and it was unnamed. The modern OU grants the BA, the BSc, and LLB undergraduate degrees, and the BA and BSc may be named (following a specified syllabus) or unnamed (constructed of courses chosen by the student).

Many OU faculties have now introduced short modules worth ten credits. Most of these modules are taught online, and start at regular intervals throughout the year. They typically provide an introduction to a broader subject over a period of ten weeks, these are generally timed during vacations at conventional universities in order to take advantage of their facilities. Some science modules, which require only home study, are complemented by residential courses, in order to allow the student to gain practical laboratory experience in that field; typically, an award of degree or diploma will require completion of both.

Different modules are run at different times of the year, but, typically, a 30 or 60 credit module will run either from October to June or from February through to October. Assessment is by both continual assessment (with, normally, between four and eight assignments during the year) and, for most, a final examination or, on some modules, a major assignment.


As well as degrees in named subject, the Open University also grants "Open" Bachelor degrees where the syllabus is designed by the students by combining any number of Open University modules up to 300 credits for an Open degree and 360 credits for an Open honours degree – the main restriction on which courses can be included is that there must be at least 60 at level 3 for the "ordinary degree" and 120 at level 3 for honours and in both cases no more than 120 at level 1. The Open degree may be awarded as a Bachelor of Arts Open or a Bachelor of Science Open either with or without honours. Without honours, at least 150 credits at level 1 and above and 60 credits at level 2 and above are required in the field, either art or science, for the Open degree to carry that name. For a degree with honours, no more than 120 credits at level 1, 120 credits at level 2 and above and 120 credits at level 3 and above are required.

Other qualifications

The Open University grants undergraduate Certificates (abbreviated Cert) typically awarded after 60 completed credits at Level 1 or Level 3 (where each credit corresponds to roughly 10 hours of study, therefore 60 credits represent about 600 hours of effort), Diplomas (abbreviated Dip) after 120 credits – typically 60 credits at Level 2 and 60 credits at Level 3, ordinary Bachelor degrees (abbreviated BA, BSc, etc.) after 300 credits, and Bachelor degrees with honours, (abbreviated BA (Hons), BSc (Hons), etc.) after 360 credits. Open University also awards Foundation degrees (abbreviated FdA, FdSc, etc.).

OU also offers a limited number of CertHE (120 CATS) and DipHE (240 CATS).


The Open University provides the opportunity to study for a PhD on a part-time distance, or a full-time on-site basis in a wide range of disciplines as well as an EdD for professionals in education. The University also offers a range of Master's levels modules such as the MBA and MPA, MSc, MA and MEd, and MRes, as well as the professional PGCE qualification and a number of postgraduate diplomas and certificates including innovative practice-based modules and postgraduate computing qualifications for professionals. Postgraduate certificates are awarded for 60 credits of study on specified modules; postgraduate diplomas are awarded for 120 credits of study on specified modules. The University offers "Advanced Diplomas" that involve 60 credits at undergraduate level and 60 credits at postgraduate level – these are designed as "bridges" between undergraduate and postgraduate study.

Degree ceremonies

Unlike most United Kingdom universities, degree graduation presentation ceremonies at the Open University are not the occasion on which degrees are formally conferred. This happens in absentia at a joint meeting of the University's Council and Senate ahead of the ceremony. The University's ceremonies — or "Presentation of Graduates" — occur throughout the year at various prestigious auditorium venues located throughout the United Kingdom, plus one each in Ireland and Continental Western Europe. In the year 2010 the OU held 26 degree ceremonies including Dublin, Manchester, Glasgow, Ely and Versailles. These ceremonies are presided over by a senior academic at Pro-Vice-Chancellor level or higher, and have the normal formal rituals associated with a graduation ceremony, including academic dress, procession, and university mace.

In year 2000, The Open University was the first to host an online 'virtual' graduation ceremony in the United Kingdom together with an audience at the OU's campus in Milton Keynes. Twenty-six students in eight countries, from the United States of America to Hong Kong, were presented for their masters degrees in the online graduation, including, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Tim Berners-Lee one of the founders of the World Wide Web who was conferred with an honorary doctorate.[29]


Like other UK universities, the OU actively engages in research. The OU's Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute has become particularly well known to the public through its involvement in space missions. In October 2006, the Cassini-Huygens mission including 15 people from the OU received the 2006 "Laurels for Team Achievement Award" from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). Cassini-Huygens' successful completion of its seven-year, two billion-mile journey in January 2005 to Saturn ended with Huygens landing farther away from Earth than any previous probe or craft in the history of space exploration. The first instrument to touch Saturn's moon Titan was the Surface Science Package containing nine sensors to investigate the physical properties of Titan's surface. It was built by a team at the OU led by Professor John Zarnecki.

The OU now employs over 500 people engaged in research in over 25 areas, and there are over 1,200 research students. It spends approximately £20 million each year on research, around £6 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the remainder from external funders.

The Open University also runs the Open Research Online (ORO) website.[30]


A diverse range of students from all walks of life are attracted to the OU; for most modules there are no entry requirements other than the ability to study at an appropriate level, though most postgraduate modules require evidence of previous study or equivalent life experience. This fundamental open admissions policy makes undergraduate university study accessible to all.

In the 2009–10 academic year over 70% of students were in full-time or part-time employment,[12] often working towards a first (or additional) degree or qualification to progress or change their career. Over 50,000 students are being sponsored by their employer (three out of four FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses). The University is also popular with those who cannot physically attend a traditional (on-campus) university study course because they have health limitations, are working or resident overseas, in prison, serving in the armed forces, caring for family members, or are otherwise unable to attend or commit to traditional full-time or on-campus university study. Students are represented by the University's students' union, known as the Open University Students Association, usually abbreviated to OUSA.

In the 2009–2010 academic year, there were 253,075 enrolled students, plus an additional 2,273 customers who bought course materials but did not enrol on a course to receive academic credits.[12] The majority of students in the 2009–10 academic year were aged between 25 and 44 years old, with the median age of new undergraduates being 31.[12] Most students were from England (166,936), while 15,744 were from Scotland, 8,443 from Wales, 4,225 from Northern Ireland, and 12,127 from elsewhere in the European Union, plus others elsewhere.[12] 61% of undergraduates were female, with even numbers among those taking postgraduate modules.[12]

Young undergraduates

While most of those studying are mature students, an increasingly large proportion of new undergraduates are aged between 17–25, to the extent that the OU now has more students in this age range than the number of undergraduates at any other UK university.[31][11] The reduction in financial support for those attending traditional universities, coupled with the use of technologies such as iTunes and YouTube that appeal to this demographic, is believed to be behind this growth.[32]

By spring 2011, 32,000 undergraduates were under 25 years old,[11] representing around 25% of new students.[33] In 2010, 29,000 undergraduates were in this age range.[34] In the 2003–2004 academic year around 20% of new undergraduates were under 25,[35] up from 12.5% in 1996–1997[35] (the year before top-up fees were announced). In 2010 approximately 55% of those under 25 were also in full time employment.[34]

The OU works with some schools to introduce A Level students to OU study and in 2009–2010 3% of undergraduates were under 18 years old.


Unlike other universities, where students register for a programme, OU students register separately for individual modules (which may be 10, 15, 20, 30 or 60 CATS credits, equivalent to 5, 7.5, 10, 15, or 30 ECTS credits). These modules may then be linked into degree programmes.

During the 2009–10 academic year social studies was the most popular study area (with 16,381 full-time equivalent students), followed by biological and physical sciences (12,357), and historical and philosophical studies (8,686); the least popular academic fields were mass communications and documentation (123 full-time equivalent students) and creative arts and design (2,528).[12]

The most popular module during 2009–10 was DD101 An introduction to the social sciences (7,512 students), followed by AA100 The Arts Past and Present, B120 An Introduction to Business Studies, K101 An Introduction to Health and Social Care and Y163 Starting with Psychology.[12]

Fees and financial assistance

61,787 students received financial assistance towards their study in 2009–10 and the typical cost for United Kingdom based students of a Bachelor's honours degree at the OU was between £3,780 and £5,130 (European Union and international students pay more as the University does not receive government funding for them).[12] After government support, the second most important revenue stream to The Open University is academic fees paid by the students, which totalled about £157 million in 2009–2010.[12]

Qualifications awarded

The University enrolled fewer than 50,000 students in the 1970–1971 academic year, but it quickly exceeded that number by 1974–1975.[12] By 1987–1988 yearly enrolment had doubled to 100,000 students, passing 200,000 by 2001–2002 and 250,000 in 2009–2010.[12]

Cumulatively, by the end of 2009–2010 the OU had educated more than 1.5 million students and awarded 819,564 qualifications after successful assessment.[12]

Notable current and former academics

Walton Hall manor house, the Vice-Chancellor's office and the second oldest building on the OU Campus.
Walton Hall, headquarters of the OU, in 1970 at the time of its renovation for use by the new university. (Artist: Hilary French)

Notable graduates

The OU has over two million alumni, including:

In fiction

The Open University has been featured in many film and television programmes. The plot of Educating Rita surrounds the working class character aiming to "improve" herself by studying English literature. She attends private tutorials run by alcoholic lecturer Frank. The teaching methods are not an accurate portrayal of contemporary teaching at the OU.

Television characters have also followed OU courses. These include Anne Bryce in the BBC sit-com Ever Decreasing Circles, Yvonne Sparrow in Goodnight Sweetheart, and Bulman, in the ITV spin-off from the series Strangers. Sheila Grant (Sue Johnston) was accused of having an affair with her tutor in Brookside. Onslow, a character from Keeping up Appearances, watches Open University programming on television from time to time.

In Autumn 2006, Lenny Henry was a star in Slings and Arrows, a one-off BBC television drama which he also wrote, about someone who falls in love while on an OU English Literature course. (Henry has himself completed an OU degree in English)[39]

In the 2006-7 TV series Life on Mars, Sam Tyler received messages from the real world via Open University programmes late at night.

In the 2005 science fiction novel Sunstorm, written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, the fictional Astronomer Royal, called Siobhan McGorran, used to work for the Open University in Milton Keynes.

During the Black Books episode "Party", Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig) informs Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey) that he was admitted to The Open University, however his Admission Letter was destroyed by Bernard Black (Dylan Moran).

See also


  1. ^ Chancellor of The Open University
  2. ^ Vice-Chancellor of The Open University
  3. ^ a b c "Table 0a – All students by institution, mode of study, level of study, gender and domicile 2005/06" (Microsoft Excel spreadsheet). Higher Education Statistics Agency online statistics. Retrieved 2007-12-19. 
  4. ^ The Open University – Estates and Building Facilities
  5. ^ Research at The Open University
  6. ^ "Study at the OU: What you can study if you’re resident outside the UK". Retrieved 22. Sept. 2010. 
  7. ^ The Open University – Milton Keynes Campus
  8. ^ The Open University – Campus Buildings, Facilities
  9. ^ The Open University – life on campus
  10. ^ "Brief history of the OU". Retrieved 2006-10-08. 
  11. ^ a b c Meet the students | 18 to 24, Open University, accessed 2011-05-06
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Facts & figures 2009/10, Open University, accessed 2011-05-06
  13. ^ "Students rate university courses". BBC News. 21 September 2005. Retrieved 2006-10-08. 
  14. ^ "Student satisfaction survey results". BBC News. 23 August 2006. Retrieved 2006-10-08. 
  15. ^ The Open University highly rated for student satisfaction
  16. ^ "Open University : Database of Institutions Accredited". Middle States Commission on Higher Education, United States of America. Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  17. ^ USA Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  18. ^ "In 1969, when the idea of The Open University was announced, it was described as "blithering nonsense" by Iain Macleod MP."
  19. ^ "About our business school: Open University Business School". Retrieved 26. Sept. 2010. 
  20. ^ Sesame – The news service reaching the Open University worldwide
  21. ^ OU ranks ninth in University League Table Sesame, July 2002
  22. ^ Teleport to Open University island. Second Life grid.
  23. ^ Teleport to Open Life Village. Second Life grid.
  24. ^ The Open University’s Place for Us: Providing Geographically Dispersed Students & Faculty A Place to Meet and Learn Together. Linden Lab Education blog, May 2009.
  25. ^ "Open University's iTunes record". BBC News. 29 June 2010. 
  26. ^ The 60-point Accounting course has a three-hour paper half-way through the course, and two more three-hour papers at the end
  27. ^ Working out your class of honours
  28. ^ "OU regulations 8.5.2 stipulating limit on maximum concurrent modules" (PDF). Retrieved 2006-10-08. 
  29. ^ "Open University's online graduation". BBC NEWS. 31. March. 2000. Retrieved 22. Sept. 2010. 
  30. ^ Open Research Online, accessed 21 September 2008, 2h03Z.
  31. ^ Students in Higher Education Institutions: Table 1 – All students by HE institution, level of study, mode of study and domicile 2009/10 Higher Education Statistics Agency, accessed 2011-05-06
  32. ^ "Young students flock to the OU". Janet Murray, The Guardian (London). 29. Jun. 2010. Retrieved 20. Sept. 2010. 
  33. ^ Open University may be in its 40s – but students are getting younger The Guardian, published 11–01–03, accessed 2011-05-06
  34. ^ a b New generation of part-time learners focus on career progression: 1 in 4 of new OU students is under 25 – 55% work full-time Open University, published 2011-08-11, accessed 2011-05-06
  35. ^ a b "OU sees rise in younger students". BBC News. 2 August 2005. Retrieved 2006-10-08. 
  36. ^ Professor Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor University of Lincoln
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^ a b "OU to feature in new TV drama" (Print and online). Sesame: p. 5. Autumn 2006 Issue 231. Retrieved 2006-10-08. 
  40. ^ "Biography: HE Meles Zenawi". Retrieved 2006-11-21. 

External links

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