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Unlike most undergraduate courses at universities in the United Kingdom, the Open University (OU) does not have formal entry requirements, operating instead on a “first come, first served” basis. Last month, the OU was ranked among the best in the country in the National Students Survey, which rates course satisfaction primarily, amongst other factors.

Students mainly study at home, completing work on-line after course materials are posted or e-mailed out by tutors and ‘lecturers’. Course support is an essential part of the role of the OU and can include face-to-face group meetings, tutorials by phone or by computer conferencing. Many students are attracted to the OU because they can complete courses part-time or attend night schooling sessions whilst remaining at work full-time. Students do have to pay tuition fees, although they are around half or two-thirds the cost of most other universities. It means most students pay between £4,500 and £6,000 for a three-year degree, which is substantially lower than the standard now £3145 fee at the national universities. Also, some students are also eligible for grants, depending on their family income. The average age of students is 32, although 14 per cent of new undergraduates last year were under 25. Students can take the full range of courses and subjects. Social studies remain the most popular area, followed by the sciences and history and philosophical studies. Lots of other areas are also available, including an extensive management and business department.

Just days prior to thousands of students receiving A-level results, it was disclosed that the number of 18 to 21-year-olds turning to the OU has rocketed by more than a third this year. This has become an increasingly attractive option to many students who would usually be taking up places at conventional universities, particularly among students who fear falling into long-term debt in the recession.

Over four decades, the Open University has been at the forefront of innovation in learning, and this year celebrates its 40th birthday. However, at the beginning, an Open University degree was seen as a lesser qualification than a normal one. Without the same strict criteria for entry, it was viewed as an easy option. Now the OU is consistently in the top three of the National Students Survey of Student Satisfaction and had 18 out of 25 subjects classed as excellent in the last UK Quality Assurance Agency subject review. In the recent UK universities Research Assessment Exercise it was raised 23 places in the UK league table, with 14 per cent of its research described as “world leading” and more than 50 per cent described as “internationally excellent.”

However, the rest of the world has finally caught up with the OU, and distance learning is booming in popularity. It has more students than any other university in the UK, teaches almost 200,000 each year and has so far helped more than 2 million people learn. At any one time there are about 14,000 people in Scotland on an OU course and, as school leavers examine higher results and student debt rises, more than ever are likely to be tempted to consider the OU as a way to study and earn at the same time. These are great times for the Open University.