Martin Bean – Shaping the future together

Martin Bean is the OU’s vice chancellor. Today, he gave his Annual Address to the University, entitled “Shaping the Future Together”. This address is the kick-off for the Council Residential Weekend – Council being the main governing body of the University.

I liveblogged his address to the OU in January 2009, when he was VC-designate, and also a keynote he gave at ALT-C in September 2009 after he’d taken up the job.

I’ve always found Martin an inspiring speaker. He sends round regular video podcasts for staff (including transcripts, which as a video-skeptic I particularly appreciate – classic example of Access For All principles there). But it’s nice to have a chance to hear him in person. Back in January, he encouraged staff to sign up to attend one of our graduation ceremonies. I always used to do this once a year but had stopped for pressure of time. So I took his advice and went to the Milton Keynes graduation ceremony, and it was as moving as I remembered – and he was a fantastic presence on the stage.

We’re in a situation of enormous uncertainty and pressure, in general (the economic situation), in the HE sector (the economic situation), in the UK HE sector (fees, the rise of the private HE sector – e.g. BPP and NCH, and the economic situation), and at the OU (fees, ELQ, and the economic situation).

I think we could do with listening to an inspiring speaker about now.

These are my liveblog notes from his address. (The talk was also webcast, and should be available for replay shortly afterwards – if you’re coming to this long after 23 September 2011, you’ll need to navigate through the list to talks from that date.)

The address was strictly ticket only … although when I showed up (nice and early to get the best blogging seat) nobody checked. I like the idea that the OU is the sort of place that you can tell people it’s ticket only and only people with tickets will turn up. It was also video linked to many of the OU’s regional offices.

“Absolutely delighted to be with you all this afternoon”, he says. Welcomes the Council members. Will be reviewing our strategic plan. His remarks will be about the OU response to changing conditions in the four nations.

Starts by introducing a student – Jadgett (?) – who comes on stage.

She’s currently studying Early Years, single mum of 2, school leaver only, nothing since (in education terms) because she became a young mum, and didn’t forsee a future in education. Lost her job last year, was in a panic – how will I provide for the children? No family support. Daughter came home with OU taster leaflet and suggested following dream of being a teacher. Didn’t know OU existed at the time. Joined up, took 11-year-old daughter’s advice. Thought she’d have to wait for the kids to leave home, great to learn with them. Has had such an impact, bond in learning with her children. Competition! Is a gift to have inspiration from your kids. Daughter entered young writers’ competition and won. Joy as a parent, taking a step in to HE has wonderful effect on kids. More confidence as a parent, as a student. Does voluntary work towards career, in children’s centres. Couldn’t have done without personal tutorial support from OU. Feels part of family she never had. Wants to give back to OU family. Says thank you for turning her dreams into a reality.

Big applause from the audience. Martin comes back on stage.

This sums up the OU – the power to transform people’s lives. Many like her. Determination. I hear these stories every time I attend a degree ceremony. The enormous pride and sense of achievement that OU graduates feel is palpable. OU is achieving great things – for the nation at large as well as for individuals. Promoting social inclusion, mobility, at scale. This is the result of our open access policy, widening participation, student support. 74k people with one A level or less will study with us. Also workforce development, economic growth, regeneration. 4/5 of FTSE100 sponsor their employees on OU programmes. Also contribution to intellectual life of nation.

Not just about teaching, research and scholarship. OER and social networking brings learning within reach of millions of informal learners.

Was hard work over many years. Present generation of OU staff and supporters, including ALs – can all feel very proud of our achievements. Thank you.


Pause to consider challenges.

Not time to rest on our laurels, need to move with the environment. Recent report – Deloitte (2011) – Making the grade 2011 – A study of the top 10 issues facing HEIs. Focus on four of these:

  1. Diversify income. Funding, fees. Reduction from governments. Increased contributions from students. They have to decide whether their investment – time, money – will pay off. Employers too. Society at large. Within the UK, different governments are making different decisions.
  2. Compete for students. Increased rivalry between universities. Changing demographics. Top-tier Ok. 2nd, 3rd are competing for less-prepared students who may be price sensitive. New entrants to the market too, without the same overheads.
  3. Expand vocational programmes. Vocational offerings are outperforming traditional courses in employment rates, salary gains. Demonstrate practical outcomes, economic value. Recent OU proposals on employability will help us.
  4. Widen access for disadvantaged groups – accessibility, affordability, diversity. Challenge. Particularly on low incomes, disability, remove communities, disenfranchised ethnic groups. Open learning policies, financial aid, culturally diverse offerings.

Business models changing. Need to differentiate from competition. Align offerings with student needs.

Cloud Gate Chicago (Explore)

How the OU is organising itself to respond

Biggest challenges are at the top – diversifying income, competing for students – big issues. OU recently completed a UK Market Strategy Project. Three aims: determine key student groups, identify courses and qualifications they want, give steer on prices they’ll accept. Clear pointer to the future was to continue to do what we do best: part time, flexible study for adults, maintain open access policy, continue support for disadvantaged background learners. Focus on traditional heartlands, in four groups:

  • Employed adults, under 50, no degree, want HE qualification to improve career/life chances.
  • Adults without degree, under 50, not employed, want HE qualification to help gain employment
  • Adults who want to enhance knowledge by studying 1 or 2 modules, typically >50, leisure/career mixture
  • Employed graduates who want increase employability by postgraduate qualification

Strategy based on assumption that we’ll only be successful if we focus on those students we’re best placed to serve – and exceed their expectations.


Public funding under pressure; diversification needed. In England, public expenditure on HE is down, by mechanism of students making a larger contribution once in work and earning >£21k. Universities can charge up to £9,000 from Sep 2012. 70% have said they’ll charge full £9,000. Scotland and Northern Ireland are not cutting HE budgets to the same extent, and not increasing student contributions for home students. Wales are consulting on part-time student support; ministers say may charge different and higher fees to students from elsewhere. Complex, changing environment. Have to adjust our strategy.

We can’t set a uniform fee across the whole of the UK. In England, 80% reduction over 3y of OU income. We will charge £5,000 for the equivalent of a whole year’s full-time study. Existing students can stay on same arrangements. We will look in November at Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and also postgraduate, European and worldwide fees.

Fees to new undergraduates are significantly less than at most other universities. Very distinctive marketplace position. Strong position that OU will continue to provide accessible learning to as many as possible. The situation is changing – twelve universities are planning to bring their rises back below £7,500, and BPP has settled on £5,000 per FTE year, the same as us. We will continue to attract and retain students from our core groups. Transition will be difficult.

This is a significant increase for students in England. Ensuring comprehensive system of financial support for part-time students. We have achieved a lot. PT students can take out a student loan. OU study will be free at point of study, repay after 3y, and only if salary >£21k, will then vary with salary. If earning £25k a year, repayment will be £6.92/week. Disadvantaged backgrounds can get National Scholarship Programme, and other programmes we’re developing. Disabled Students Allowance.

If had set less than £5,000, would have risked economic viability, couldn’t deliver high quality at scale. If had set much higher, might get more income, but alter composition and size of our student body.

This is the optimum balance between educational and financial consideration. Pays due regard to issues of social justice. Good value for money if – if – we can communicate the benefits of new system. Need to emphasise that students in England will get high quality experience, significantly cheaper than other providers.

Hope you’re as proud as I am of the OU results in the National Student Survey. Cannot allow quality of student experience to suffer.

Key priorities

Council will now discuss key priorities to form the basis of a revised strategic plan for 2011-15. Will respect mission and values, build on achievements to date. Respond to challenges. Take account of market research. Operate in new marketplace across the four nations of UK.

There are a series of priorities, in four main groups:

  1. Deliver excellent student experience and outcomes. Go to market: generate awareness, new students among our core groups, clarity on price, help find best funding options. Future customer experience. Study experience: major renewal of access programme. Learning experience: comprehensive data to guide improvement in the parts of the learning experience of greatest value.
  2. Enhance our reputation and academic standing. Research and scholarship: absolutely vital. Open and informal learning: maintain world-leading position, enhance reputation, and attract and engage new learners.
  3. Develop high performance. Agile people, processes and systems. Make sure staff have development opportunities to respond to shifting demands. Update systems to respond more quickly to new opportunities. New student number planning and control system to manage numbers and allocate resources.
  4. Ensure long-term sustainability. Secure best possible deal for students and OU by influencing government policy. Managing costs and delivering savings.

These will be developed this weekend, then fully defined by October, presented to Council early 2012.


We all know the backdrop: economy, tremendous opportunities to support professional and personal development. Aid economic recovery, promote social inclusion. Clear sense of direction, basis of a strategy.

Will have to move quickly to adjust strategy and processes. Will be difficult to change round. We know we’ve done it in the past, confident will do in the future. We are very different to 40y ago, 30, 20, even 10. Will be different again in 10y. Change and innovation is in our bloodstream. We remain open to ideas.

Passion and dedication of staff and supporters – commitment to mission and values. Let’s keep a clear focus on core values, and the needs of our students and prospective students. Let’s continue to use our creativity, innovation and mission-led approach to respond to challenges.

The OU is an incredible agent of change, social mobility, economic development. Transform people’s lives.

A Rainbow of Fruity Flavor

Questions and Answers

Lord Chris Haskins (LH) takes to the stage, and joins Martin (MB) in easy chairs.

Someone: Do you think Jagesh (?) will be able to join the OU paying three times as much in fees?

MB: Let’s not put her on the spot. When I get asked that, I look at the external reality, and internal reality. 80% drop in government funding over 3y. We were faced with a decision of survival. I hope I made clear, don’t underestimate what’s going on here – burden shifted on to individual rather than state. Decision made for us. If we hadn’t secured part-time students’ access to loans, it would be a disaster right now. We are doing our best to make lemonade from lemons. Good deal for our students in getting access to those loans – free at point of entry, only repay after 3y, only over £21k income.  We can deliver where people live and work, which helps maintenance and living costs. We are redeveloping our widening access and success programme for our own safety net. Pressure on governments to maintain support for people who slip outside nets. One cohort to pay attention to particularly – ELQ students. For those, these changes are devastating. Will not get access to student loans – will have to pay entire fee up front. Must be respectful of that impact.

Someone: I didn’t hear an answer to my question

MB: There are opportunities. Not fair to put her on the spot to answer.

Marianne, OUSA President: ELQ students. I’ve been warmed to find the number of ELQ students who are extremely worried that after 2012 new students in their situation will not have opportunity to study with the OU. Very many extremely worried.

MB: Congratulations on your ascendancy as President. No doubt. Have spent 2y arguing on behalf of those students. Even those who criticised the ELQ decision before the election have refused to change it. Not going to give up – right at time when nations need to invest in people, why remove funding for people to make those life-changing decisions?

LH: It was the previous government made this commitment. The principle is accepted. If times get better – big if – we will come back to this issue.

Frank Banks, FELS: The focus was on the home market. Interested in the way that diversified income, vocational issues, were part of previous slide. Wondering about internationally looking at what we’re doing with teachers and health workers, and good governance – OU could be doing things there. How much is the focus on UK taking all our energies – can we look elsewhere?

MB: Incredibly proud of TESSA and HEAT and English in Action programmes. Visited Ethiopia for kickoff of HEAT programme. Showed me, made me so proud to be VC, not just focused on domestic viability but addressing some of the world’s big challenges. Tried and true principle – take care of core university business, but compartmentalise for survival. Under Edith Prak’s leadership, investing in continuing to mature and grow those developmental projects, which are remarkable. Delighted to say, I have just announced Steve (Stephen Hill) as our new Commercial Director – strategy outside the UK, funded students. Vast majority of university’s effort needs to be transition in our heartlands, but are investing outside UK to move in appropriate directions. Continue to lead in those other areas.

Jeff Thomas, Science: I am facing happy prospect of retirement. What indicators, measures, will one apply to see whether this vision is realised? What would you recommend to gauge the genuine success of university life?

MB: Fantastic question. (turns to LH) Chris? (laughter) For the OU – I’ll be looking at: staying true to mission and ethos. If you come back to one of our fundraising events, ask is this still about being open to people, places, methods and ideas? Fully committed to social mobility? Second – from a business perspective, more generating stability that it can contribute to broader agendas. Then composition of our student body – is it as reflective of society as it is today? This is a nice one – can benchmark against where we are today and do a direct comparison of who we are as an institution. We’ll continue to see HE as much more than just preparing people for work. Scholarship and research characterise what a university is all about. OU continues from a quality perspective to top the marks. Student experience top of that list. Thank you for what you’ve done for the OU.

LH: OU has revolutionary contribution to issue of education. We’ve opened doors to people who want further education. This country is not dealing with people who fall out of education, never to come back in. The system fails people. At some point,OU commitment should be brought to deal with that in some way. All sorts of questions about it. But we have something to contribute to what is the biggest problem in the country.

MB: Chris just inserted about 17 meetings in to my diary. Very good! (laughter)

Andrew Mason, Science (via email): Mobile technology. With rapid increasing in adoption of mobile, smartphones, and the dramatic impact on educational provision – how do you see OU role in leading this paradigm shift?

MB: Wonderful question, Denise and I spend a lot of time talking about. Add something to report card (from previous question)- intensely proud that we lead in innovation in HE, like to think we’ll continue. Mobility is one part of that. We are about 39m downloads through iTunes U, in 3 years, with 89% outside the UK. Well over 12m users of Open Learn. We’re all over YouTube. Of top 5 titles on iTunes U last week … all were us! We are stretching Apple’s, Google’s imagination on delivering high quality education. Should all feel incredibly proud of that. Two principles: First, not just technology for technology’s sake, has to contribute to learning experience, strengthen personal relationships. Second, it’s not about are we in love with Apple, Google, Facebook – the OU is doing well because we have 42 years of building breathtaking content to work well at a distance. 30m viewings of BBC co-productions just in the UK. No-one better to build content once and syndicate it in to wherever. Not about picking single platforms. Building great content, manifesting in many places. Through IET, KMi, faculties, scholarship and research efforts – rolling it out the right way.

(Denise Kirkpatrick declines to add any more.)

Ian Wright, PSSRI (email): Notwithstanding results of UK market survey, what are we going to do if the economic situation means increased demand from school leavers? What if there’s a disconnect between survey and reality of what happens?

MB: To Ian – why aren’t you here? (laughing) Thank you. Our research, it’s as good as what we can infer from it at the moment. Believe in fact-based decision-making, our best guess at the future. That’s at one moment in time. Underpinning our new planning system, want to be more responsive, keep in touch with changing student patterns of demand. Agility, streamlining. We used to have 1-2y sight over our funding, but new world can change in 6 months. Very different mindset needed. If stuff doesn’t work out how we planned, we need to be able to be more responsive than we’ve had to be in the last decade.

LH: Research is brilliant, but it is only research. (!) Most is about your experience of the past, this is about how you will respond in the future. People say what they will do. I have my doubts. Will be a long period of change. The fees level here are second largest in the world in terms of student debt. Can explain it’s not as bad as it sounds, but people have psychological barriers. Fear of taking on debt. Younger people maybe being more interested, thought might have come through, but may be very different. 5y time will definitely be different.

(Thanks and farewells.)

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

3 thoughts on “Martin Bean – Shaping the future together”

  1. Heelo Doug.

    Many thanks for this detailed post on Martin Bean’s speech outlining the OU’s strategy going forward. We’re in the throws of our renewal of strategy at and it was engaging to read your blow-by-blow commentary on the speech and the interactive session that followed.

    Excellent and extremely useful post and commentary.

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now, actually ever since Scott Leslie of our staff was at the OU as part of a fellowship a couple of years ago. I hope you will find the time to write more often. I always find the materail insightful and valuable in our work.



    1. Hello David

      Thanks – what a lovely comment. You’re more than welcome. I’m always delighted when what I post is useful to others.

      Good luck with your own strategy renewal.

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