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Open University

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The Open University
Motto Learn and Live
Established 1969
Type Public
Chancellor Lord Puttnam of Queensgate CBE
Vice-Chancellor Martin G. Bean
Students 168,850
Undergraduates 151,385
Postgraduates 17,465
Location Milton Keynes (main campus) & regional centres, United Kingdom
Campus Distance learning
48 hectares (0.48 km2)
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 university founded by Royal Charter in the United Kingdom and funded in part by the United Kingdom Government. 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. There are a number of full-time postgraduate research students based on the 48 hectare university campus 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.

The OU was established in 1969 and the first students enrolled in January 1971. 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 180,000 students enrolled, including more than 25,000 students studying overseas, 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 3 million students have studied its courses. It was rated top university in England and Wales for student satisfaction in the 2005 and 2006 United Kingdom government national student satisfaction survey, and second in the 2007 survey.

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

In May 2009, David Cameron, leader of the United Kingdom political Conservative Party and a regular speaker at the Open University campus in Milton Keynes, delivered a keynote speech praising the OU for 'innovation'. As recent as 7th June 2010, and now serving as the newly elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron once again returned to choose the Open University campus to deliver another keynote speech on the United Kingdom's economy and outline his new government's plans to tackle the economic challenges that lay ahead.


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"). However, the OU accepted its first 25,000 students in 1971, adopting a radical open admissions policy. At the time, the total "traditional" university student population in the United Kingdom was around 130,000.

Organisation and administration


Berrill Building, built 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, about 10,000 OU students have health disabilities. 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 Associate Lecturers and, as of the 2006-2007 academic year, there are over eight thousand working for the OU. There are also 1,218 salaried academic employees, 1,654 others who are also academic-related, and 1,847 support staff (including secretaries and technicians). Salaries are the main cost in The Open University's accounts, claiming over £225 million for the 2006-2007 academic year.

Academic divisions


The University has Faculties of Arts; Education & Language Studies; Health and Social Care; Law; Mathematics, Computing and Technology; Science; Social Science; and a Business School. 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.

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. 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" 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 and OUtopia village. They are separated by a third region "OU Ocean." In May 2009 these regions formed the basis of a case study 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 iTunesU, with downloads of over 20 million

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), 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 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; 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.

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 points at Level 2 and 60 points 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. 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.


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.

Student life

A diverse age 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.

Approximately 70% of students are in full-time employment, often working towards a first (or additional) degree or qualification to progress or change their career, with over 50,000 being sponsored by their employer. 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. Including, amongst changing perceptions, the economic feasibility and today's advanced technological environment, an increasing population of students aged between 17-25 who are simply expecting versatile or evolved options to the traditional on-campus university study.

While most of those studying are mature students, the reduction in financial support for those attending traditional universities has also led to an influx of young undergraduates to the OU. In the 2003–2004 academic year, around 20% of undergraduates were under 25 years old, up from 12.5% in 1996–1997 (the year before top-up fees were announced) and a small minority are under 18. The OU works with some schools to introduce A Level students to OU study.

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.

The students' union is the Open University Students Association, usually abbreviated to OUSA.

The University enrolled fewer than 50,000 students in the 1970-1971 academic year, but it quickly exceeded that number by 1974-1975, and by 1987-1988 yearly enrollment had doubled to 100,000 students, reaching 200,000 by 2001-2002; cumulatively, the University has educated more than two million students, 675,000 of whom studied enough mdoules to achieve a qualification after successful assessment. In the 2006-2007 academic year, there were 224,276 students and 6184 customers (who bought the course materials but did not enroll on the course to receive academic credits). Most students came from England (148,395), while others were from Scotland, Ireland, and the rest of the European Union.

The majority of students (14,577) chose to undertake social studies and biological and physical sciences (11 910), as well as historical and philosophical studies; the least popular academic fields in The Open University are mass communications and documentation (187 students) and creative arts and design (545 students). The most popular module for the 2006-2007 academic year was DD100 An introduction to the social sciences (more than seven thousand students studied it in one academic year), followed by A103 An introduction to the humanities, K100 Understanding health and social care, M150 Data, computing and information, and DSE212 Exploring psychology (slightly fewer than four thousand students). More undergraduate students were female than male, while there were slightly more males than females taking postgraduate modules; and the majority of the students were between 25 and 44 years old, the median age of new undergraduates being 32. 37,852 students received financial assistance towards their study, and the typical cost for United Kingdom based students of a Bachelor's honours degree at the OU was between £3,150 and £4,225 (European Union and international students pay more as the University does not receive government funding for them). After government support, the second most important revenue stream to The Open University is academic fees paid by the students, which in one academic year (2006–2007) total about £123 million.

Notable current and former academics

Walton Hall manor house, the Vice-Chancellor's office and the 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)
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell - Astronomer
  • Tim Benton - Art Historian
  • Catherine Cooke - Architect and Russian Scholar
  • Brian Goodwin - Biologist
  • Stuart Hall - Social Scientist
  • Arthur Marwick - Historian
  • Doreen Massey - Geographer
  • Oliver Penrose - Mathematician
  • Colin Pillinger - Planetary Scientist
  • Steven Rose - Biologist
  • Russell Stannard - Physicist
  • Margaret Wetherell - Discourse Analyst, Social Psychologist
  • Glenn White - Astronomer
  • Robin Wilson - Mathematician

Notable graduates

The OU has over two million alumni, including:

  • Professor Mary Stuart - Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln
  • Elizabeth Arnold, children's writer
  • Craig Brown, former Scotland football manager
  • Romola Garai, actress
  • Lenny Henry, entertainer
  • Gerry Hughes, sailor, first single-handed crossing of the Atlantic by a deaf person
  • Mylene Klass - actress and media personality
  • Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia
  • Bobby Cummines OBE FRSA - Charity chief executive and reformed offender

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)

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).

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