Open University National Role

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The Open University National Role is a National initiative in England (a home nation of the UK) funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) via a £7.8 million grant from its Strategic Development Fund (SDF) to address shared solutions to common problems in the UK higher education sector. The grant will enable UK universities to act collaboratively to improve student retention and deliver more flexible provision in the higher education sector. (Note that HEFCE will allocate around £196 million to the Open University for teaching and research in 2009-10.)

The funding will be focused on three projects, all of which will be led by the OU with its national reach:

  • Shared Returns, a regionally based student retention initiative
  • SCORE, a Support Centre for Open Resources in Education
  • an Academic Partnership Hub which will move the sector towards more flexible education offerings.

HEFCE has been working with The Open University since 2005 to develop its role as a central resource for the HE sector, enabling the university to act as a catalyst for partnership and collaboration with other universities and colleges.

The initiative is sometimes also called Higher Education Shared Solutions.

The three projects

Shared Returns

About 35,000 students a year in England do not complete their higher education courses, and many are not currently aware of the options available to them when they leave university part-way through a degree. The Shared Returns project - initially run as a pilot in the north-west of England from the OU's regional office - will proactively offer students advice on continuing their studies in higher education. The OU, UCAS and the other partner universities in the north-west will work together to give students at risk of leaving, or who have left HE, information and guidance to help inform their decisions. This may be referring them to other local universities, advising them of alternative degree course options or looking at what career aims they have. It is estimated that 10-15% of non-completing students will be retained in higher education as a result of the project.


SCORE stands for Support Centre for Open Resources in Education, will be a centre to identify and promote good practice in educational technology and open resources. With today’s students increasingly technologically literate, SCORE will help institutions to develop new resources and services to enhance teaching and reduce the costs of course development.

Academic Partnership Hub

The third project is an Academic Partnership Hub which will help to bring about cultural and organisational changes in the sector to allow for closer collaboration. Promoting and managing cross-sector projects, the Hub will deliver change and innovation to move the higher education sector towards more flexible provision for students. In the future, this could see the provision of a flexible degree with both distance learning and face to face modules, and which would support a smooth transition between part-time and full-time education according to the student’s changing circumstances.

Quotations at the launch

The UK Prime Minister said:

The success of distance learning, pioneered 40 years ago by the Open University, has been nothing short of a revolution for higher education. It has opened the doors to a whole new audience of students who have not only seen academic success but reaped the wider rewards learning brings.
An approach to higher education which emphasises accessibility and flexibility has put the UK at the forefront of e-learning and to build on this achievement with a new £20 million fund to support centres of excellence for online learning.
I am also supporting the Open University with additional funding to further its role as a national leader, working with other institutions, to develop distance learning.

Professor David Vincent, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at The Open University, said:

The landscape of higher education and the needs of today’s students are changing rapidly and in order to address these challenges, a collaborative approach is hugely important. Being open with resources and content has always been a part of the OU’s mission to widen participation in education. We are extremely excited by the potential that these projects present for the sector as a whole and, most importantly, for students.’

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) said:

The Open University has been at the forefront of the distance learning revolution for the last 40 years and I am pleased that they will receive further funding to enhance the important national role they play, working collaboratively across the sector’
The potential of communications technologies to extend the reach of our universities is one of the most exciting aspects of higher education today. This is why there will be up to £20 million in matched funding for our universities to build on their successes ensuring we remain a world leader and become the first choice across the world for in e-learning.

(See OLIF for details of the £20 million fund.)

The Chief Executive of HEFCE said:

The Open University is a unique national asset, providing educational opportunities for people of all ages from across the country to study. HEFCE's funding will enable the university to take significant steps in promoting its expertise and resources to develop its national role in the higher education sector. I congratulate the university on its 40 years of achievements and look forward to its continued and enhanced role.

History of this initiative

The initiative goes back to earlier work by the Open University, funded by HEFCE. In 2006 David Vincent wrote in an article that: The OU is ready to take on a wider role in national higher education provision. He stated:

In a pathbreaking experiment HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has just funded two projects designed to explore the national role of The Open University. It has awarded over £2 million to support two sets of consortia exploiting OU curricula in the sciences, modern languages and key shortage subjects. And it is sharing in the funding of a joint post between HEFCE and the OU to develop ways in which the OU can provide infrastructural services to the sector as a whole.
The experiment demands that a new balance be struck between autonomy and collaboration. All UK universities, including the OU, are rightly jealous of their independence. HEFCE is acutely aware of its obligation not to favour any one institution, nor to exceed its powers of guidance and accountability. Yet we also know that all against all in higher education guarantees nothing except an expense of spirit and effort.
The regional agenda has been a response to this problem, and the OU is now taking part in 13 lifelong learning networks. Yet these ventures in turn threaten duplication and inconsistency in their response to urgent issues of access and progression. Alongside these projects, which will continue to expand, there is a case for examining whether there are solutions which can operate on a national basis.
HEFCE now wants to think through these possibilities with us. The likely model is not some imposed OU role, still less a monopoly right of provision. Rather it is the offer of services which institutions can draw down as they need them. We can maintain curriculum coverage more easily in times of falling recruitment, owing to our scale of operation; we can populate nationwide credit frameworks which encompass the whole ladder of learning, deliver advice and guidance consistently and at scale and deploy learning platforms to support sophisticated learner support systems.
It will require imagination and adaptability on the part of both the OU and the sector as a whole to make constructive and cost-effective use of this new form of collaboration. With HEFCE's investment we now have the means to commence this task.

The noted e-learning expert Jonathan Darby was appointed to head this earlier project.

See also

> UK

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