I’ll never forget the first time I told a teacher I was going to study at The Open University. I was 16, just starting my AS Levels at college and like many people of that age, I was beginning to think about what degree I’d like to study. Unlike most of my fellow students though, my end goal was a little different; I wasn’t planning on attending a traditional ‘brick’ university.
Instead of being met with approval and encouragement by my lecturers like the rest of my cohort when expressing their post-college plans, I immediately saw a look of disappointment and even judgement in their eyes. “Don’t give up,” was a phrase I was often met with, something that still puzzles me to this day. Giving up would be not going to college, not doing a degree, having no ambition; surely a different route didn’t equal failure?
Sadly, this sort of reaction was a frequent occurrence. Throughout my subsequent five years of studying, I received a plethora of comments about my worthless ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree. Even when you Google search The Open University, one of the first related search results asks, ‘Is The Open University a proper degree?’ My question is: why?
First proposed by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1963, The Open University (OU) – or the ‘University of the Air’ as it was known – was officially opened to students in 1969. Its purpose then was simple: to provide higher education to those who, for whatever reason, were not able to access by traditional means, using television and radio to enable distance learning. Although this has evolved now with the use of technology, its principles were and remain to be open to all people, places, methods and ideas.
Today, it is one of the largest universities in Europe, with students studying degrees, diplomas and other qualifications from all over the world in the comfort of their own homes – or just about anywhere! Although it is still a solid option for many who cannot access mainstream higher education – the OU are one of the leading providers for higher education for those with disabilities, and this was a big part of my original decision to study with them – it is increasingly becoming more of an option for those who simply want to choose a different route. In fact, 33% of new graduates are under the age of 25, and 74% of students work full or part time while studying. More than 2 million students have now studied with the OU since its humble beginnings over 50 years ago.
Impressive, right? So why do so many people dismiss The Open University? Firstly, I think it is important to mention that while I was faced with much disapproval before and during my degree, I have yet to meet an employer who hasn’t been beyond impressed by my qualification, even while I was still studying. To have the drive, time management skills and pure determination to study independently for such a long period of time – the majority of OU students study part time, meaning undergraduate degrees take six years – is impressive to many and shows highly employable qualities. I can’t pretend it wasn’t disheartening though, to have so much disapproval in the early days and indeed during my journey – I even began looking at brick universities, despite knowing deep down that wasn’t the route for me.
One possible reason could be the entry requirements. While brick universities have high entry requirements, cranking on the pressure at A Level, The Open University has none. One could have never had a day’s education in their life and be accepted for an undergraduate course at the OU. Of course, the more experience you have, the easier you will find the qualification, but in theory it truly is open to all. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. While I got good GCSEs and was predicted the same at A Level, my health stopped me finishing college. I wouldn’t have had the grades to get into a brick university even if I wanted to; yet that didn’t stop me from achieving a first-class honours degree with the OU. It gives people a chance who wouldn’t have had one before, and it certainly doesn’t mean the work is easy; the degree you finish with is just the same whether you physically go to university or not. In fact, the grade boundaries to achieve top classifications at the OU are significantly higher, requiring 85% for a First versus 70% at brick university!
Another reason is a pure lack of understanding. For many, their university experience was a blur of socialising on nights out and hours of lecture theatres. Cramming in hours of study at home after a long day of work or attending online seminars late in the evening is an entirely different experience. Many of the students I had the pleasure to ‘meet’ during my degree had many different responsibilities, from parents to those working full time in very demanding careers such as the NHS to those caring for relatives. There were no nights out or Freshers Week, only the demands of daily life and snatched sessions of studying. Yet for many, it allowed them to be with family, gain experience in a relevant field or simply earn a living while studying. It is a different experience, but valid nonetheless.
Getting a degree is hard, however you choose to do it – and it is a huge achievement either way. Looking back, I have no regrets; my health improved dramatically a year into my degree, and I could have easily transferred to a brick university, but I didn’t even consider it. For me, The Open University just worked. I moved in with my partner, started our life together and began a career before I had even graduated, earning a living as well as invaluable skills and experience. While I graduated later than most of my peers at 24, I am in a good position and wouldn’t change a thing. I am beyond proud of my ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree and can’t wait to celebrate it with the man himself in Disneyland Paris next year!
In a time where the internet has never been so important, with many of the UK’s top universities phasing to online learning and many students missing out on those seemingly all-important A-level grades, I will end this article with just one final thought: there is more than one way to get a degree.