Back to School or How the Open University (OU) Reminds me of Student Issues.

Back to School

At the ripe old age of something rather greater than twenty one I decided it was time to obtain a degree.  It is not as though I am uneducated.  The problem is the qualifications I have are sneeringly referred to as “vocational” by the academic elite and so, despite being far harder to obtain than a degree, they are treated as “below ‘A’ level”.  In reality that is because the qualifications I have are not known to those blinkered academics and they have no way of judging.

The Open University (OU)

The OU makes it possible for a student to obtain a degree at significantly lower cost than if they went to a full time University.  Indeed the attraction of the OU is that you can carry on a full time job and by spreading your studies over six years you can quite easily devote sufficient time and energy to your studies.  You will still be entitled to a student loan and so your resources need not be stretched while you study.  No part of the loan needs to be considered for repayment until after  you have completed your degree course.

In my case, of course, I am retired.  Contrary to popular opinion that means I have far less time available to study… That is another story.  However I have embarked on studies towards a BA (Hons) Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

My Previous Further Education

When I studied for my technical qualifications I had to attend lectures from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with an hour for lunch and that was every day.  In addition there was preparation to be done in the evenings which generally took a couple of hours per day.  4200 hours of lectures with an additional 1,000 hours preparation i.e. 5200 hours altogether.  That is around 10 times the number of contact hours the average degree student has to endure but only about double the number of study hours for an Open University degree.  Modern Open University courses require a significant online presence.

Rigorous Examinations

The examinations were rigorous and applied under considerable pressure.  Examination paper after examination paper landed on the desk.  “Start writing” declared the invigilator.  “Stop writing”  and the papers were collected as another landed on the desk.  “Start writing”. “Stop writing”…..etc.

A symbol of pride

That was the nature of the examinations to qualify to be a Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy.  The knowledge required in electronics, radio theory, telecommunications, engineering, mathematics, telegram and operating procedures, Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was vast.  There were no props.  No calculators.  No reference material during exams.  You had a ruler, a pencil and a pen.  You had to know your stuff.  Then there were also practical examinations.


A Beautiful Document

As beautiful as the old Passport

Pass marks ranged from 60%, in Radio Theory, to 100% in morse transmission and SOLAS.   Pass marks for degrees are significantly lower.  If you failed you had nothing;  no credits to be transferred to another course of study and not so much as a piece of paper.  Having, however, passed all the 14 exams the Maritime Communications General Certificate was a beautiful hand bound document.

The questions seemed simple enough.  For example one was worded:  “With the aid of a detailed circuit diagram and vector diagrams, explain the working of a Foster Seeley Discriminator”.

The circuit diagram was pretty complex as too were the graphs that had to be reproduced from memory.  Fortunately I had revised this topic very thoroughly and had worked out, for myself, how the circuit really worked.  Hence I was able not only to explain the tedious vector mathematics a boring lecturer had droned on about for hours  but also to create an explanation in plain English.  The examiner was heard to remark, allegedly, “AH! So that is how it works!”.

It is funny what you remember about examinations.  When I later trained to be a Systems Analyst, another year of full time education, my main memory is about the hardware which kept crashing.  Then I remember my pleasure as I delivered a successful system design which the invigilator desperately tried to pull apart.  Like a music exam those exams are a matter, in part, of an individual presentation and being interrogated to the point of (almost ) destruction of your work

New Studies and the Contrast

Now I find myself studying in a relaxed environment where I can control my own schedule and devote as much, or as little, time as I choose to each component.  Naturally there is a minimum time requirement and it takes considerable self-discipline simply to study.  While it is not necessarily an easy option I would recommend OU study to anyone who has the will power and self-discipline to apply themselves.  Thus far it is significantly less arduous than my previous studies.

The Cost

OU courses cost around half as much as conventional University courses and so for someone from a background where money is a stranger there is an immediate attraction.  People from poor backgrounds do not need to do without a degree level education and a degree could cost as little as £16,000 or thereabouts.  Less borrowing and you still have 30 years to repay it and you can be working and not running up debts for living costs while you study.

The Implications

By now you are wondering why I have written this in a political magazine.  The point is that the financing of further education is a major issue and Government dishonesty has led to students being placed in impossible situations.  They are in those impossible situations because a monopoly was created where a fixed rate applied to all courses.  The OU provides a mechanism for dodging that monopoly and obtaining an equivalent education at significantly lower cost and with significantly less disruption to your life.  It is an alternative route that many might consider.

Paying For Education

It is the responsibility of society to fund education.  The problem has been that a succession of Governments had sought to deceive the public and pretend the nation could afford to send 50% of our young to University Education.  In a way we could but that means higher taxes or borrowing.  That borrowing would count towards the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR).

This is one of the rods pretentious economists and rival politicians will beat a Government with.  The solution, Government thought, was to remove the borrowing from the PSBR by putting it in the name of the students themselves.  In reality this borrowing should still be counted towards the PSBR since the State actually guarantees it and indeed will end up repaying most of it.

A more equitable solution to the problem would have been to have made student loans interest free.  Then a proportion of the loan should be counted towards the PSBR (say 20%).  The State would make a contribution to the cost of the education by absorbing the cost of the interest and would end up laying out roughly as much as it did to educate the 10% that used to obtain University Education.

Now why didn’t they think of that?


© PJW Holland MMXVII

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