Written evidence submitted by Open University

House of Commons Education Committee Inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services

Executive Summary


  1. The Open University (OU) is the world’s leading distance learning provider and the only provider in the UK dedicated to distance learning. We also make available a considerable amount of open educational resources free of charge via our OpenLearn and FutureLearn platforms as part of our social mission.


  1. We have taken a number of actions to mobilise our expertise in online learning, distance education, research, scholarship and public engagement to respond to the current national emergency. This includes:


  1. In terms of the impact on teaching, in the short-term OU students have been affected somewhat less than students at other HE providers. The impact thus far has been largely limited to:



  1. We anticipate that the impacts on OU students will be bigger in the medium-to-long term, especially if the current restrictions on day-to-day life persist over the course of several months. There is a risk that OU students could be particularly affected as other parts of their lives have to take priority over their studies: most are in work (76% of OU students are in full-time or part-time work), many have childcare responsibilities (36% of part-time students have dependent children), a significant number are managing a disability or long-term health condition (21% of OU students), and most have significant financial responsibilities.


  1. In terms of supporting students and the economy as we move into the next phase of the response to the Covid-19 crisis, we recommend that the Committee:


The effect of cancelling formal exams, including the fairness of qualifications awarded and pupils’ progression to the next stage of education or employment


  1. The OU has continued to teach all of our courses and students are able to continue to engage with and study all of their learning materials, which they have full access to for the duration of their module, our academic staff continue to support them with their studies, and students continue to be able to access pastoral support.


  1. However, after careful consideration, we have removed the final end-of-module assessment on modules where we are able to assess the student’s level of understanding of the academic content and their learning outcomes utilising previous assessment from other assignments they have completed on that module. We have retained end-of-module assessments and are facilitating remote exams in approximately half of our modules due to requirements set by Professional, Statutory or Regulatory bodies, where the summative assessment component has a particularly heavy weighting, or where the final assessment is a substantive piece of work such as a dissertation. This policy is being kept under continuous review.


  1. We took these measures to ease the burden on students who may find themselves struggling to keep up with their studies and submit assignments while dealing with the additional pressures at this time. These decisions were made by faculties on a module-by-module basis and took into account the need to maintain academic quality and the need to ensure that students have achieved the module and qualification learning outcomes. The OU’s internal Module Results Approval and Qualifications Classification Panel will continue to ratify module results, considering the impact of current circumstances on student outcomes to ensure fairness.


  1. Where the end of module assessment has been cancelled, students have been given the option of postponing their end-of-module assessment until a later date at no additional cost. If a student chooses not to do the assessment at a later date, their module result will be calculated using the student’s overall continuous assessment scores and by comparing the distribution of results obtained by the current cohort of students against academic standards achieved in previous years. This is a standard approach and is used as a quality assurance measure to ensure achievements in one year are of a comparable standard to previous years to ensure equity of grade allocation.


  1. The change to end-of-module assessment has had a knock-on impact on the way that the OU administers other related policies and a number of temporary amendments have been made to allow additional flexibility and prioritise minimising the adverse impact on the student experience. Additional considerations have been made for students particularly impacted in different ways across our student body, including: Students in Secure Environments, those studying via a partnership and those with disabilities or additional requirements.


Support for pupils and families during closures


The consistency of messsaging from schools and further and higher education providers on remote learning


  1. As the leading distance learning provider in the UK, our model of online supported learning has proved resilient. While there have been significant challenges due to the impact of the lockdown on our staff and on our ways of working to deliver our courses, there has been little immediate effect on the teaching we offer to our students.



  1. In addition to supporting our current cohorts of registered students, we have focused on how we can help in the national response to the Covid-19 crisis through sharing our world-leading expertise and capability in the delivery of high-quality online teaching. Our experience with remote working can be quickly utilised and shared with other organisations across the education sector and beyond. Our expertise has been shared in a variety of ways, including informal webinars, free short courses, resources that can be adapted by other providers for staff training, and a full Masters in online education.


  1. We make a wide range of open educational resources available for free on our OpenLearn platform across a wide range of different subjects as part of our social mission.[4] This includes:


  1. We also have a wide range of open educational resources available via our joint ownership of the FutureLearn platform, alongside SEEK, Australia’s top employment marketplace, and in partnership with HE providers across the UK and around the world.[5] FutureLearn has recently launched FutureLearn Schools in partnership with Pearson and the TES Institute, a new intiative that gives millions of students aged 13+ free, upgraded access to over a hundred relevant short courses to support their learning during the Covid-19 lockdown.[6] It has also launched a new course for educators to help support them in moving learning online during the pandemic.[7]


  1. We have undertaken a number of activities to support the response to the Covid-19 pandemic including:


Children’s and young people’s mental health and safety outside of the structure and oversight of in-person education


  1. As a specialist distance learning provider, the OU has considerable experience in supporting student mental health outside of face-to-face education for students of all ages. Indeed, many students with mental health issues actively seek out the OU as their study choice due to the flexiblity which the OU offers.


  1. The University’s Help Centre provides an initial gateway to signpost students to support and advice about mental health and well-being. We have recently added some specific information tailored to the current Covid-19 crisis.


  1. Part of this support is providing all of our students access to an online network, “Big White Wall”, which provides a safe space for members to air their concerns, explore their feelings and learn techniques to self-manage and improve their mental health and wellbeing. The network is always moderated by clinically trained staff and all posts on the site are completely anonymous. This is an additional resource for staff in student-facing roles to signpost students to.


  1. Some specific initiatives include:


  1. We have a range of resources to support our frontline staff with helping students with mental health issues:


  1. We also utilise StudentHub Live – our live connection with students – to help support students mental health and wellbeing. Activities are in a range of different formats, from live studio broadcasts, Adobe Connect sessions and a new radio show format. Due to the flexibilities of this provision, they have been well-placed to flex to put on new ad hoc sessions to support our students through the Covid-19 situation. These new sessions have proved extremely popular with students and have had to be ticketed due to demand, with catch-up-on-demand options made available.




  1. Specifically around the current Covid-19 crisis, actions include:


The effect on apprenticeships and other workplace-based education courses


  1. As one of the largest higher and degree apprenticeship providers in England, the OU is already seeing a number of impacts of the pandemic on our apprentices and their employers in England.


  1. The OU’s large and small employer partners are doing their best to provide the flexibility that allows apprentices to continue to train and undertake their apprenticeship, even if they are unable to work in the short-term. This has been supported by the OU’s high-quality blended learning teaching model, in which the teaching is delivered online with a focus on the pedagogy of learning and which can be adapted for a range of different styles of learning.


  1. To fully support the apprentice with their programme, and to continue to contextualise their learning to their work environments, we have moved our face-to-face support involving ‘practice-based tutors’ (workplace coaches) to online meetings and phone calls. However, some apprentices – and in particular those working at our NHS and other public sector employer partners who are focused on the frontline in this time of crisis – have taken a break from learning. These apprentices hope to resume their studies later in the year. In the NHS, we have also witnessed a number of deferrals from apprentices and employers who had been due to start their training in May.


  1. To support the apprenticeship programme in the short-term, we would urge policymakers to:


  1. Looking ahead, much of the picture about the impact of Covid-19 will begin to emerge over the next three months as employers refocus their strategies and adapt their future plans for recruitment and training. There will be an immediate impact on the apprenticeship programme from delayed starts with possible reductions in new start recruitment, breaks in learning and challenges in completing End Point Assessments. As well as having a detrimental impact on apprentices themselves, these will also have a big impact on the funding for providers. Such challenges will add to pre-existing questions around how to ensure the market remains sustainable and that employers and apprentices continue to be support by a choice of high-quality and specialist providers given possible reductions to funding bands and questions over the future funding of the apprenticeship levy. These issues need to be considered holistically.


  1. It is therefore important that the Committee focuses on the medium- to long-term funding and sustainability of the apprenticeship sector as well as the immediate challenges. The OU believes we are already facing a potentially fractious and siloed policy-making picture, with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education undertaking a review of how funding bands are determined in tandem to a Treasury review of the apprenticeship levy in England ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Even before Covid-19 hit, there was a risk that these reviews could result in huge changes to the funding of higher and degree apprenticeships that could have stifled quality and innovation and forced many providers to exit the market. Now, with the current crisis, we believe the sector needs to reconvene to have a wider, strategic debate geared towards the Comprehensive Spending Review, that takes into account the significant effect of Covid-19 on the economic and skills landscape across all Standards and all Levels. This would then allow the UK Government, providers and employers, large and small, to work together to assess the new skills and training environment and discuss new solutions and ideas.


  1. The apprenticeship sector across the UK could suffer long-term consequences and feel huge shockwaves if apprenticeships are not seen as part of a wider solution to help kick-start the economy again. The OU believes the positive transformation of apprenticeship policy over the past few years could be undermined unless there is a holistic strategy that takes into account the specific needs and requirements of the economy to boost supply and demand. Apprenticeships are – and will continue to be – vital to help large and small businesses get the skills they so desperately need to boost productivity. They will play a key role in enabling people to upskill and reskill as their business needs change and to transform people’s lives by boosting their career prospects.


The financial implications of closures for providers, pupils and families


  1. The Open University went into the Covid-19 crisis with a robust financial position thanks to financial prudence over the last few years as we have adapted our operating model to the huge decline in part-time student numbers that was caused by the 2012 student finance reforms in England.


  1. The short-term financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis for the OU has, to date, been relatively limited in comparison with some other providers and, other than the challenges with apprenticeship provision discussed above, mainly relate to additional costs associated with the necessary changes in our ways of working and the impact of the lockdown on our employees rather than any loss of income. However, there are a lot of uncertainties and we anticipate that there will be a substantial medium-to-long-term impact of the crisis on our financial position. This includes:


  1. It is also important to note that there are a number of challenges in providing high-quality online provision and that doing so effectively requires substantial investment. Quality online and distance education is developed by multidisciplinary teams and tested extensively to ensure prospective learners get the most from the medium. Failure to do this risks a backlash against poor quality learning that seeks to replicate the face-to-face model, without accounting for the challenges and opportunities of online provision. The costs associated with providing high-quality online learning are not substantially lower than the costs of conventional face-to-face provision. The Open University’s offer to students includes virtual face-to-face teaching from our 3,800 associate lecturers as well as substantially higher course development costs in designing effective up-to-date online programmes and supporting material based on cutting-edge innovative pedagogy and learning analytics. Remote learning also involves substantially higher student support costs for the provider, both from the perspective of there being more students per FTE due to lower study intensity and due to the unique challenges for student success of studying as a distance learner, especially as a mature student combining full-time work and/or family responsibilities with study.


  1. These additional costs outweigh many of the savings in estate costs from providing courses remotely. However, despite this, tuition fees at the OU are £6,192 per full-time equivalent student – 33% lower than at most conventional providers – thanks to our scale, our long-standing expertise in online learning, our social mission and direct teaching grant funding via the part-time student premium which supports student success.






What contingency planning can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of any future national emergency?


  1. The OU had a robust Pandemic Planning Framework and Emergency Response Plan which it was able to invoke swiftly with key stakeholders as required. However, it is clear that scenarios that had been tested were based on single location incidents (e.g. shutdown of one location) and not widespread worldwide disruption on such unprecedented scale. Although we have achieved working from home for the vast majority of our workforce, and did so within 48 hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement of guidance for people to work from home where they possibly can on 16 March, we now have evidence to refine the frameworks and plans to cover a greater scope of eventualities. Support from policymakers in enabling the sector to work together more effectively in response to such an emergency again including through testing scenarios with others in the sector would be welcome and help develop solutions in advance.


  1. In terms of the Office for Students, their approach in temporarily reducing reporting requirements and in pausing business-as-usual policy development work has allowed us to focus on what matters: delivering services to students and maintaining academic standards without distraction.


About The Open University









May 2020




[1] See https://theskillstoolkit.campaign.gov.uk/

[2] Bank of England, Monetary Policy Report, May 2020

[3] House of Commons Hansard, Covid-19: Economic Debate (Column 130), 12 May 2020

[4] See https://www.open.edu/openlearn/

[5] See https://www.futurelearn.com/

[6] See https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/collections/futurelearn-schools

[7] See https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/teach-online

[8] Polling commissioned by the OU on May 9-10 2020 of adults in GB with a sample size of 2,062

[9] OU internal data

[10] Polling commissioned by the OU on May 9-10 2020 of adults in GB with a sample size of 2,062

[11] See https://theskillstoolkit.campaign.gov.uk/

[12] See e.g. London Economics, How is the demand for part-time higher education affected by changing economic conditions, 2017

[13] See, for example, Department for Education, Impact of the student finance system on participation, experience and outcomes of disadvantaged young people: Literature Review, May 2019 (pages 115-117)