Leaving the door open to education


THE Open University is one of the longest established and most respected providers of distance learning courses in the world. Since its foundation over 25 years ago, some, two-and-a-half million people have participated in its courses, 75 per cent of whom have remained in full-time employment during their studies.

The Open University was set up, to offer people the opportunity to fulfill their academic potential regardless of how high up the educational ladder they had gone.

There are no entry requirements (except for higher degrees), no admission interviews and OU courses are open to any people who want to try their hand at a third-level course.

People do drop out. But the vast majority continue and the modular structure of the courses makes it possible for students to proceed at their own pace and to take a break if necessary if their home or work circumstances change.

"We would naturally like all of those who begin studying with us to finish. But that is not always possible for a variety of reasons and we understand this," says Dr Rosemary Hamilton, the regional director of the Open University in Ireland.

"But we do try to make things as", easy as possible for our students and to ensure that people choose the most appropriate courses for them. This is why we have advisors, who are very familiar with our courses and their content and it is a good idea for people to have a chat with an advisor before committing themselves to a course," she says.

In response to the growing number of enquiries about OU courses from the Republic, a fully staffed information office was set up in Dublin last year and OU students here have local tutors, local tutorial, centres and local residential schools during their courses.

"It has only been possible to accept non-UK nationals as registered students on OU courses since 1992 and we have seen student numbers growing substantially since then," says Hamilton.

"In 1995 there were around 5,000 OU students in other countries (there are roughly 6,000 in Northern Ireland and the Republic) with a further 10,000 taking OU courses through partnership agreements with educational institutions around the world.

"I think the OU approach to education works because it recognises that adult students have another life," she continues. "Our system acknowledges that people have jobs and families and that it may suit them to study more one year and less the next or to take time out completely. Conversely, those who have the time can complete our courses in bigger blocks."

Traditionally, the average OU student was in his or her mid-30s, but Rosemary Hamilton says there has been a big increase in applications from people in their mid-20s.

"I think this may be due to young people deciding they wanted a break after school to work and to earn some money or to go and see a bit of the world before settling down to study. Others have found jobs and got themselves established with companies but are now finding that they need to improve their qualifications if they are to progress their careers within their organisations and they are coming to us because they can combine working and studying," she says.

Students on undergraduate courses make up about 70 per cent of OU numbers in Ireland and women are studying in roughly equal numbers. OU courses are also suitable for those with disabilities as the OU is very willing to allow- students do their exams at home if necessary or to have extra time or special facilities as required.

Business-related courses and those related to computers and IT are firm favourites with OU students while there is also a big demand for psychology.

"The IT bias is understandable as IT has become so much a part of everyone's working life these days, while our business courses are popular with those who find themselves in management positions although they may have come to management from other disciplines.

"The interest in psychology seems to stem from the fact that- people believe there are good job- opportunities in caring services such as counselling and psychotherapy," says Hamilton.

Hamilton is a chemist by training and she has been involved with the OU since its inception. She has taught (and continues to teach) on the science foundation course for the past 25 years and she has worked as an OU tutor and organiser in various roles before being appointed regional director in 1992.