The Open University crisis exemplifies the UK’s failure to support adult learning. It’s time to seek inspiration elsewhere
The current crisis at the Open University illustrates how public support for adult learning has gone so badly wrong in the UK. For nearly half a century, the OU has served a unique role in British educational life, complementing face-to-face learning in place-based institutions with distance education. While the 2012 tuition fees rise increased budgets for most universities, they have been disastrous for the OU, Birkbeck and others serving part-time mature students.
But the crisis in adult higher education participation is not limited to specialist institutions. Step by step, opportunities for adults to learn have been eroded. First, the 100-year tradition of university extra-mural departments aimed at adults closed one by one. Second, state funding for mature students to study at the same level or below their highest qualification went out of the window. Meanwhile, widening participation strategies were concentrated more and more on school leavers. Then the fees rise devastated mature and part-time study, especially at sub-degree level. And once the student number cap was lifted, most universities opted for the easily administered full-time young entrant over the less tidy part-time adult.
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