Open University changes direction to align more with business targets multinational overseas

Pioneering UK university is trying to push even further into the corporate and overseas market
Life-long learner: as well as overseeing the OU’s growth outside the UK, Steve Hill is about to complete a third degree with the institution © FT

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Steve Hill was an assistant bank manager for NatWest, in the UK, when he was told by his employer that he would need to have a degree to become a branch manager.

With only a few qualifications from school, NatWest sponsored his studies, taking his career from a local branch to the City of London.

Two Open University degrees later and a third soon to be completed, Mr Hill now works as the university’s director of external engagement, liaising with businesses and running efforts to expand overseas.

During the day, at least. At night, he continues his university studies. At present he is working on a module that he hopes will help him complete a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He has studied almost 20 Open University courses and countless Moocs (massive open online courses).

“I started studying with the OU in 1993 and I am still studying today,” says Mr Hill. “I’m studying the Naked Soldier [dilemma]. So, if someone is wearing a uniform in war I can shoot that individual. But if I look through my rifle sights and I see a combatant not in uniform, they have the gun at the side of the tin bath and they’re having a bath in the field, can I shoot them?”

Asked what day-to-day application such ethical reasoning might have at the university’s modernist campus in Milton Keynes, 55 miles north of London, he replies: “I just think it makes you think about a complex situation and look at it in different ways. And I’ve run out of business leadership courses to study.”

It is just as well that Mr Hill is such a passionate believer in the product because a large part of his job is to turn round the university’s fortunes. The organisation has been the victim of a squeeze that began in 2011 as a series of changes in how universities are funded.

While the shift towards charging students £9,000 a year for tuition has been a boon for most universities, it has hit the Open University hard. Mr Hill says that it has lost many of those over 40 who were studying as a hobby.

As student numbers declined to 174,000 last year from more than 250,000 in 2011, income fell to £404m in 2014 from £471m in 2011, and only started to recover last year to reach £422m.

The university was founded in 1969 to provide “degree-level learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend traditional campus universities”.

While it has continued to operate under the same open admissions policy — 40 per cent of students have no more than one A-level and a fifth live in Britain’s most deprived areas — Mr Hill has been charged with making it more relevant to the needs of businesses and with international expansion.

The result is that revenues from both those sources account for about 10
per cent of the university’s annual turn-
over and will continue to show
double-digit growth in the years ahead, he predicts. “The revenue that we generate from our corporate employer relationships is much more important to us today than it was in 2010.”

If working directly with employers to tailor courses to their needs has been a lifesaver for the Open University, it is the possibilities for overseas expansion that look set to secure its future. The need for quality higher education is staggering. For instance, with 26m higher education places in India, the country needs another 14m, according to a British Council report. In China, the higher education sector has tripled in size since 1997.

“The world cannot build enough universities,” says Mr Hill, arguing that a shift to online and distance learning must follow.

The Open University has students registered from 142 countries and is looking to expand relations with large multinationals to sponsor employees.

A third area of growth from overseas is coming from partnerships with universities that want to develop online teaching. One example is the Arab Open University, which operates from several capitals in the Middle East, and which has turned to the British institution to develop its curriculum and give access to millions of women previously excluded from higher education.

For all the strengths of the Open University and British education, Mr Hill says that the UK can learn much from abroad. He cites the concept of “learning banks” or life-long learning accounts pioneered by the Open University in Shanghai for more than 800,000 students.

“Some of the systems I’ve seen in China have just completely blown my mind,” he says. “I’m looking at credits that an individual has accumulated over 30 years and it’s all there in one place. How interesting would that be as an employer, if you could then see someone’s dedication and focus to their own self-development?”

Having studied an Open University course for most of his adult life, Mr Hill is confident that his personal learning bank will continue to grow regardless of what the future holds.

“I’ve studied with the OU for 23 years. It’s a bit addictive actually, but I do it to unwind.”

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