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Open University plan 2030: Smash and Grab or Innovate at Walton Hall?

  • 4 April 2024
  • By Steven Cousins
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Steven Cousins, alumnus of Durham University and the Open University.
  • The Open University has responded to the blog: you can read their response underneath the article.

It is as though the Open University (OU) has suddenly discovered an oil reserve deep beneath the Walton Hall campus and is determined to drill and extract the market price, whatever the CO2 cost or the reputational damage might be. After all, the OU is renowned for its support for a low-carbon Planet Earth and the OU remains one of the UK’s most trusted institutions. After the Post Office scandal, most trusted institutions seem rather rare.  The black gold the OU has discovered is the value of the campus land for housing and the CO2 cost comes through emitting around an additional half a ton of CO2 for each square meter of floor area when the existing area of University buildings are rebuilt elsewhere.  This comparison includes the OU staying put and upgrading its buildings to an equivalent high standard.

The OU is the UK’s largest university and it is embarking on the most major educational transformation in its 50-year history.  It is about to combine its role as an institution of some 200,000 distance learning students with a new target population of ‘up to’ 20,000 face-to-face students taught on-campus in Milton Keynes. To pay for this transformation, the University has controversially proposed to demolish its Walton Hall site for housing and move to a new campus 4 miles away in Central Milton Keynes. This is the big idea behind the OU 2030 project. 

There are fears that this preoccupation with bricks and mortar (glass and steel?) is a major distraction from the University’s real challenges which are educational as well as financial.  The challenges include revitalising its core business of distance learning to better compete and lead nationally and internationally; revitalising the curriculum to meet the evolving environmental, economic and new strategic challenges; and the need to find out what actually works in the blended use of OU materials when teaching face-to-face. These challenges should be immensely exciting for OU academics.  Suitably managed they constitute a good reason for academics to come into work again and, post-Covid, to make the campus a vital and vibrant place once more.  In addition, research output and income are much more likely to grow at Walton Hall in the short and medium future if facilities are maintained and if the place feels dynamic. The 2030 hiatus and promises of labs tomorrow do not attract bright minds to stay around.  Ironically, a small unit specialising in embodied energy in buildings has already moved on.    

Other universities at a scale of 20,000 students have typically taken 50 years to achieve that size. Rather than move, there is ample reserved land around the OU to allow it to grow gradually when it knows what works in its plan and to see what size it can realistically reach when directly competing with all other universities.  Proof of what actually works for the OU should unlock the Department for Education funding for an appropriate expansion.

Understanding the Milton Keynes context is also important. It is a city built on a USA-inspired grid network where employment areas are distributed across the grid to avoid the congestion of the ‘radial city’. Calling the OU campus ‘suburban’ in its case for the move misses the point. The University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Warwick are also ‘suburban’ but this is scarcely a problem as they create their own spatial culture and vitality, as would a much larger Walton Hall campus.  Suburban does not mean isolated;  high transport demand is met with excellent supply as at UEA and Warwick. In Milton Keynes, there is also hope.  The Walton Hall campus is shown as a destination on a rapid transit system which also links to the national rail network and the future Oxford to Cambridge rail.

I think it is fair to say that Milton Keynes has been slow to capitalise on its geographic position at the heart of the Oxford – Cambridge corridor, “one of the largest growth opportunities in Europe?”.  There is one last major development site in the city centre. This is within walking distance of the central station and its national rail access. It is the kind of location, that if in Cambridge or Oxford, their science parks would give their eye teeth for.  Using it to move the OU means the city goes from two great growth opportunities down to one.  A science park at the centre of Milton Keynes would generate quality jobs that OU local graduates and trainees could stay on to take and provide the spending power and ‘buzz’ that the city council is looking for.

There is a strong case for a face-to-face university in Milton Keynes, which the OU is fully capable of providing.  It solves a local or regional economic need particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and other sectors.  The place where it does this within a range of 4 miles should not constitute any kind of issue.

July 2024 has been reported (see 5.1) as the crunch time when the OU Council will take the strategic financial decision on whether to undertake the move.  A Chief Operating Officer (COO) has been appointed to manage and drive forward the OU 2030 plan. It is clear from the COO job description that ‘collaborating closely with Milton Keynes Development Partnership (MKDP) who are the landowners [at the city centre] the COO will spearhead the creation of a smart, accessible and energy-efficient campus’.  Although many decisions are still to be made, the direction of travel is clear.  As well as spending on the COO, the OU has appointed architecture consultants Hawkins/Brown to put some flesh on the bones of a move. They are well placed to provide wonderful graphics of what a new city centre campus might look like (they were shortlisted for the Cranfield-MK:U proposal at the same site). Hawkins/Brown can also provide plans and comforting images of housing to replace the Walton Hall site (see their track record, such as the Oxford University Begbroke scheme). Taken together, bricks and mortar, steel and glass may well successfully woo the OU Council into scrapping the Walton Hall site. 

Championing the macho ‘doing something’ grand gesture will no doubt trump the educational and financial hard graft of inspiring staff to improve the distance learning model, to gain new markets for courses both at a distance and face-to-face as well as asking staff to bolster research income.  Claims of the low CO2 impact of the move do not stand up: any new build could be made on Walton Hall reserve land, not the city centre, and building refurbishment has a much lower footprint. 

Let us instead assume that the OU stays at Walton Hall.  Then the existing modern but redundant buildings initially provide a resource for rapid change.  Using existing buildings and putting a tight (2025) broad target in place for initial teaching face-to-face on campus will flesh out what works and explore the built form for blended learning.  Once the face-to-face student population becomes large, those buildings which now seem redundant will find plenty of admin or other refurbished uses.  

For part of the Milton Keynes city centre site, perhaps there is a face-saving opportunity based around the Arc Universities group. It could have a smaller institute, which gives Milton Keynes a front door to that amazing assembly of Arc academic talent, including that of the OU. 

Finally, when Sir David Attenborough again says, ‘and follow the links to the Open University’ the audience, including potential students, may wonder why they should if the OU is shown to be no better than other Corporate entities. The reputational risk is real here.  In a net zero world, the OU especially needs to be seen to act responsibly and not grab at every passing carbon resource available.

  • In response to this article, a spokesperson for the Open University said the following:

This blog is a personal view by the author, who argues against The Open University relocating its campus buildings at Walton Hall in Milton Keynes to a new site in the city centre.

The OU announced in June 2023 that it was undertaking an assessment of whether relocation to Milton Keynes city centre would provide better facilities for its existing operations and whether a city centre site could be suitable for creating the opportunity to study the OU’s courses on campus in addition to its distance learning provision across the UK. Some colleges already provide OU courses taught on campus.

The decision to undertake this assessment was not, as claimed by the blog author, driven by the value of its existing Walton Hall site for housing as that value, if realised, would only contribute a relatively small part of the likely total cost.

There are other factual inaccuracies in this blog. No decision has yet been made about relocation or offering ‘face-to-face’ teaching in addition to our distance learning provision and there is not a final decision planned for July. We continue to assess whether there is a case for relocation, liaising with the City Council and Milton Keynes Development Partnership, and this is expected to continue for some time as we explore the evidence and consult. Any relocation would form part of the OU’s carbon reduction plans.

The author believes that the Walton Hall site would be feasible for ‘face to face’ higher education provision, that Department for Education funding could be available for such a development, that the city centre site being assessed as a possible new site for the OU would be better as a science park, and that relocation of the OU would reduce research income. No evidence is presented to support these views, but we will note them as part of the extensive consultation we are undertaking.

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4 comments

  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    I found interesting this post and the university’s response.

    I would be interested in further discussion of the issues raised here.

  2. J.J. Brown says:

    The driver is either or both (i) to make its estate efficient, given the sprawling campus is half empty post-Covid and there has been no interest in forcing staff back in – Teams has won the day; (ii) OU wants to enter the brick university market, in the hope that there is demand for F2F and the full university campus experience in MK. Although full-time student numbers have grown at the OU and its demographic is significantly younger than 15 years ago, there is no market evidence available yet of (a) new student numbers attracted to a brick university in MK and (b) that the type of students who go to the OU who want to learn online, whether it takes them 3 or 6 years, will transform into the type of students who want to leave home and get a maintenance loan. Undoubtedly, there is no market for students who will ‘switch’ between online and campus for obvious reasons. It is very hard to see who would teach any students on campus, given that tutors and lecturers can live anywhere in the UK. The OU faces significant issues with the quality and datedness of some of its teaching materials, with how it organises its tuition for students, and still has an eye-watering attrition rate with some level 4 modules seeing over 40% of students drop out . It should be putting all its efforts into managing its open entry policy to make it ethical and should put more resources into improving its teaching, learning and assessment. Yet there is another round of stringent cost-cutting going on. Many OU staff are concerned that this is yet another ‘grand project’ by a VC, and look what happened to the last one.

  3. Gavin Moodie says:

    An interesting perspective is offered here by Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University, and an employee of the OU since 1995.

    I understand Weller to be arguing that the location of the Open University’s campus is not so interesting as the prospect of developing a hybrid blend of face to face provision and high quality learning materials.

    Weller, M. (2024, April 5). A F2F OU?, https://blog.edtechie.net/ou/a-f2f-ou/

  4. Bill Peters says:

    The blog author tries to compare the open access OU with the highly selective, high tariff universities of East Anglia and Warwick. He can’t be serious, surely. Unless he is proposing that the OU completely upends its entire entry model, then any such OU hybrid campus provision is going to rely heavily on commuter students – hence the appeal of the transport links and facilities in the centre – and not the kind of students that those other universities have.

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