The Open University is expected to be a solution to everything, including student admissions, continuous learning, the Covid-19 situation, and even tuition fees. Why is there so much interest in the Open University route right now?
Some are passionately pushing for changes to the Open University, but there is no real coordination or regulation of Open University education, with the exception of the regulation setting the maximum tuition fee at 15 euros per credit. People are interest in the Open University and see opportunities within it for all kinds of things. That is why SYL has proposed a vision to be created of the Open University education as part of the education system within the education policy report.
Within the Alternative Path to University TRY project the fragmented Open University field has carried out joint coordination for the first time ever. The project has done some great work by piloting Open University routes and raising awareness about the Open University. The debate about the Open University has also been active in the media. Few of those considering their study options have been aware of the Open University path, and not all student counsellors have been able to tell final-year students about it. The project includes both young people who do not have a study place and continuous learners who are already in work in its target group. The project will publish its results at the end of the year and will be giving recommendations on how to develop the Open University.
Historically, the Open University has offered education through a principle of openness, as the name suggests. Everyone has been able to take part in open university education regardless of previous education, age or goals. Traditionally the Open University has been a path into education for those who do not meet the general eligibility requirements for university.
In the recent debate about the Open University there has however been mentions of abandoning this principle, which would give the Open University a clearer focus as simply another path for university admissions (at a cost). Continuous learners who do not meet the eligibility requirements for higher education could still take courses at the Open University, but it would no longer be possible to complete a degree without already having a secondary degree.
Demanding eligibility for higher education would create a kind of educational dead end, even though the Open University is also seen as a solution for student admissions. While there is a congestion of applicants at the universities, i.e. many more applicants than places, the pressure will increase on all pathways into education. A solution that is offered to relieve the pressure is increasing the university admissions through Open University. The most simple solution would be to fund more regular places for new students at the universities, which the government has recently done, but not to a sufficient extent.
A surprising number of people are in support of a student admissions model where all applicants are accepted, and then the shit falls of the wheels as the cart accelerates, but its suitability and meaningfulness in Finland is debatable to say the least. In this model all applicants are taken on board, and then a knockoff competition starts where only the best and most competent receive a study place or a degree. When so many applicants are left without a study place, many try to get in via the highly competitive Open University path. This kind of system is quite merciless, even if it were free for the students. Of course from the universities’ perspective this is a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. As Finland’s goal is to get at least (and that is at least, so likely even more in the future) 50 percent of young people into higher education, this type of elimination approach is ill-suited to Finland. It is better to take people on board the cart and help everyone to move forward.
The Open University will not by itself solve all the problems of student admissions, and some of the marketing relating to these types of studies has been misleading. A person who has got a study place via the Open University path and gained a master’s degree will not have gained professional qualifications in for example psychology or law. In order to receive the right kind of master’s degree these students must apply, sit an entrance exam and transfer to another degree programme during their studies. The universities are creating and opening up new Open University routes based on demand and requirements – there is currently around 250 of these, but it is unlikely that an Open University pathway will be created for anywhere near all degree programmes. This is why the development work relating to the Open University admissions route must focus on clear admissions criteria.
We can often read stories about people who found their way into education and the world of academia via the Open University route. These are the situations where the Open University route is at its best, as it can adapt to all kinds of situations and offer a new kind of opportunity to get into university. Nowhere near all young people will find their own path immediately, which is also shown by the study we commissioned. While studying at the Open University students can get to know their chosen field and student life and find out if it is right for them. All credits can be included in a university degree.
Unfortunately these stories often fail to mention how the student funded their Open University studies and living costs. Studies on the Open University route are often full-time studies, students do not receive financial aid, and unemployment benefits only allow limited study. Tuition fees and living costs must therefore be covered by work, savings, or financial support e.g. from the student’s parents. That is why SYL and the Union of Students in Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences SAMOK have suggested that the Open University route should only account for 10 percent of the admitted students so that the good, complementary and flexible characteristics of this route will be available to many, while not endangering the fee-free education.
That is often the role of the student movement in education policy – acting as a reformer and sparring partner. Sometimes we have to be like the breakman on the roller coaster who makes sure that the speed does not get out of hand and that the ride remains suitable and safe for all.
Ps. The fourth supplementary budget allocated a total of 10 million euros to universities for increasing the amount of Open University tuition and offering an exemption from tuition fees for people who are not in education or work. The global pandemic is expected to speed up the transformation of the labour market and need for retraining. Higher education plays a key role in this. Might it be possible to develop the Open University more towards specifically serving learners who acutely need to supplement their skills or retrain?
The author is SYL’s Education Policy Adviser and a member of the steering group for the TRY project
 This expression was coined by professor Matti Wiberg, more here (in Finnish) https://www.hs.fi/kulttuuri/art-2000002528199.html