Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Open Universities of the Commonwealth

Garrett's  The State of Open Universities in the Commonwealth is a detailed 56 page examination of pioneering institutions, starting with the Open University (UKOU), Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and the University of South Africa (UNISA). The study then looks at Athabasca University (AU), National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Open Universities Australia (OUA), Open University Malaysia (OUM), Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL), University of the South Pacific (USP) and University of the West Indies (UWI). Other institutions with open access are also examined in passing, including University of Southern Queensland (USQ), which I have been a student of (along with Athabasca).

As Garrett notes, these open institutions were intended to increase access and at lower cost, than conventional universities. An apparent trend is that the larger institutions (100,000 to 500,000 students) are growing, whereas smaller ones (less than 20,000) are declining. The report also notes that open university can be a difficult experience for students, especially for undergraduates. Another interesting point is that innovations, such as MOOCs, are not being lead by the open universities.

One area the report does not address is the experience for academic staff at open universities. Like students these institutions can be frustrating for the staff.

One point the report does not make is that open universities tend to be cooperative in nature. As an example, Open Universities Australia is not a university, but a group of mostly conventional campus based institutions which come together to offer on-line programs. Even OUA, which was created as a separate institution, found it had to call on the resources and staff of existing universities, particularly in the early years.

The report also does not address the vocational nature of open university, with students mostly enrolling to get a better job. It is perhaps this, which makes the character of open university different. Also many open universities teach courses which would be considered below university level, at least in Australia.

The major problem with this report is that it limits analysis to institution based in countries which are members of the "Commonwealth".  It is not clear that previous British colonies have enough in common to form a meaningful group. Also this excludes countries with interesting and important open universities. As an example, the Open University of Hong Kong is excluded, as while it was established in 1989 during British rule, Hong Kong left the Commonwealth in 1997.

My reading of this, and other reports, suggest that for a successful open university you need at least 100,000 students and a focus on vocationally relevant postgraduate programs. A good place to start are graduate courses for teachers.

Universities are reassessing their teaching techniques and what they teach. Employers are demanding graduates with more work relevant skills and students not from a conventional academic background require different teaching and support. Along with the move to on-line education, this is likely to result in conventional universities taking on the characteristics of open universities.

Small, high cost, campus based universities, focused on producing academics, will no doubt continue to have a role, but a very limited one. Just as paper mail and paper money still exist in a digital world, but are of limited use, "campus" universities will exist as a specialized service.


Garrett, R. (2016). The State of Open Universities in the Commonwealth: A perspective on performance, competition and innovation. Retrieved from: http://dspace.col.org/bitstream/handle/11599/2048/2016_Garrett_State-of-Open-Universities.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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