By Allen Tough

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The Payame Noor Open University in Iran seeks first to promote science and culture and then ‘to provide skilled manpower in areas critical to national integration and development’. Its first courses were in chemistry, education, mathematics and Persian to be followed by biology and geology. The first objective of Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University in Thailand is ‘to provide and promote university and professional education so as to enable the people to raise their educational standards in response to the needs of society’.

The funding arrangements need to be such that the partnership can continue – if its job still needs to be done – once pump-priming is no longer available. Fourth, members of a partnership need to see that they have complementary roles and that there are benefits to all. It seems likely that partnerships where functions are divided, so that members do not have the capacity to undertake each other’s functions, as in company degrees, are more stable than those where functions are shared. Traditions of academic autonomy, for example, mean that there has been a great reluctance for institutions that can each generate teaching material to share this.

Much of this was small-scale and unnoticed, although the experience of the Soviet Union in external education was picked up by the Robbins Committee that reviewed British higher education in 1961 to 1963. This was all to change with the establishment of the Open University in Britain in 1969, designed from the outset to attract students in large numbers (initially 20,000 a year) and to attain parity of esteem with conventional universities. Its foundation rested on a number of principles: that residence was not an essential part of university education; that a variety of technologies should be used to teach and would together overcome the disadvantages of distance; that the distant elements of any course should be integrated with occasional face-to-face study; that students should receive individual support from tutors or counsellors; and that the strength of these methods justified its being established as a university, awarding its own degrees, comparable with those of its conventional sisters.

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