Spurned of Milton Keynes

The Open University, professional friend to teachers since its foundation in 1971, had a setback last March when it failed in its bid for Teacher Training Agency funding of in-service courses.

The OU won staffroom hearts and minds from its inception, when teachers realised that not only was there now an accessible and affordable route to graduate status, but that they could get at least a year's worth of credit exemptions on the strength of their training-college certificates. Since its launch, it has helped more than 100,000 teachers become graduates or achieve postgraduate qualifications.

The fact that no other university would recognise certificates had been an obstacle to the many college-trained teachers who wanted to become graduates. (Virtually the only previous route was to take a commercial correspondence course leading to an external London University degree. This was arduous and dull - and there were no exemptions for certificated teachers.) Having played its part in the creation of an all-graduate profession, a natural development was for the OU to provide courses leading to a postgraduate advanced diploma and thence to an MA in education.

Last year the top layer was added to this structure - the OU's doctorate in education. This enables teachers, and others working in education, to pursue their studies to the highest possible accredited level. Recruitment for the doctorate is described as "healthy".

Given all of this, and the OU's crucial advantage - its accessibility to anyone within reach of the Royal Mail - pioneer graduates such as myself (I received my OU degree in 1973) might be forgiven for feeling miffed that our alma mater, the love child of Jenny Lee and Harold Wilson, could be spurned by an upstart agency from the Major years.

However, if Mike Flude, the OU School of Education's postgraduate programme director feels like that, he doesn't show it.

"We've had discussions with the TTA about areas for development in our programmes. We've received helpful feedback about the shortcomings of our original bid, and we've also sought to get the TTA to recognise our unique position as a national provider and our need to have sufficient time to plan and deliver high quality teaching resources."

The OU's main strength has always been the quality of its printed course materials and "readers" (published collections of relevant academic papers).

"To some extent," explains Mike Flude, "the failure of our bid can be attributed to the long planning cycles of the university. It is less easy for us than for other providers to plan on a short timescale."

Now, though, the TTA, having looked at the results of its bidding process, has asked for interim bids, to be made by early November, for three years of funding starting in 1999.

It is not difficult to work out, though, that the main stumbling block for the OU is the TTA's insistence that professional development should be tailored to local needs.

The OU is a national institution providing equality of access to all prospective students across the UK. Just how it can reconcile this core philosophy with any call for regional emphasis is not easy to see, and it is fair to assume that decision-makers at the OU are grappling with this dilemma.

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