Distance Education -- Open Access and Inequalities


Distance education is commonly recognised as an unusual form of higher education in Britain, although the mass of work on its specific characteristics remains obscure, and largely confined to the rather unfashionable specialist literature of 'educational technology'. This public image of something valuable but still marginal to mainstream education, something worthy but dull, leaves room for some interesting misunderstandings. The main 'methodological' task is to develop a way of accounting for and going beyond these limits: public perceptions are both correct and insufficient.

Distance education is popular because it is connected in a rather vague sense with 'open-ness': with providing wider access to disadvantaged groups; with public participation in the hitherto secret garden of academic life; with an intent to break the close links between graduate status, 'middle class' origins, entry to the 'professions' for graduates, and the cosy privilege (and expense) of academe. Academics themselves can admire these possibly alarming implications since distance education is also associated with the margins of the education system - adult, part-time students. The tight association between distance education and these desirable ends is seen above all in the British Open University (UKOU), of course, one of the most widely admired of all our institutions, yet, despite the massive documentation of its activities, one of the least understood.

The intention of this paper is to argue that there are neglected aspects of this articulation of distance education and open-ness. In the interests of brevity and in an attempt to be controversial, it will be argued that each aspect of open-ness has its undiscussed, suppressed, negative counterpart - every opening includes an equal and opposite closing in distance education. This argument is pursued in the two major, connected aspects of open-ness mentioned above - 'access' and occupational open-ness, and the notion of open participation in academic life.

The neglect of the consideration of the negative sides of these issues is attributed to a flawed 'methodology' commonly used to discuss distance education - the formal and abstract aspects of distance education have been foregrounded in the discussions, with little consideration of certain 'social' and 'political' aspects. Although educational technologists have explored the official and intended design characteristics of distance teaching systems, they have systematically omitted, as a result of certain 'methodological' commitments, consideration of these other aspects. This has had both 'theoretical' and 'practical' consequences, and the latter are discussed in particular in the Conclusion.

For obvious reasons, the UKOU is the only actual example of distance education discussed in any detail here: it has been thoroughly researched, albeit using the flawed methodology described above, and the results are publicly available (in most cases). It is also the 'paradigm case' of distance education in the UK, one of the first examples, certainly the most successful example (perhaps the only successful one); much emulated in other countries; already the largest, and destined to be the dominant, institution in the university system in Britain (or so it can be argued - as the conventional systems expand in the UK, more and more designers are turning to UKOU-style distance education to offer some kind of quick fix for the problems of expanding an elite organisation into a more populist one).


The Open University came to be so christened as a result of a strategic process of 'gaining consent' rather than from a major principled commitment to open-ness per se (1), but much of the early debate about the organisation came to focus on open access. As is well known, the OU offers places to anyone, regardless of formal qualifications, subject only to the constraints of resources expressed in a quota system. Within each quota, it is a matter of 'first come, first served'. Inevitably, much interest attached to this policy, emerging as it did at the end of a long debate about the effects of social class ( and later, 'race' and gender) on educational opportunity.

The earliest questions investigated by the OU's own market research organisation, the Survey Research Department (SRD) concerned the 'social class' characteristics of the first applicants.

The early research was not carried out in a disinterested spirit of academic enquiry, but with definite public relations goals in mind, but nevertheless some interesting issues emerge. It was convenient to consider 'social class' from two directions, for example, when it came to adult students - the occupation of their parents, or their own occupation. The two sets of figures gave very different results: taking the current occupations of students, the first intakes were overwhelmingly 'middle class', but, if parental occupation were considered, the reverse was the case - many OU students (50 per cent in 1981) came from impeccably 'working class' backgrounds, and a greater percentage were admitted to the OU than to conventional universities (20 per cent in 1981) (Open University 1984). Later, another 'underprivileged' group was identified as a major beneficiary of distance education - women, who 'overachieve' at the OU compared with men, as nowhere else in the British education system (Woodley 1981).

Whatever the implications for the rather stilted popular debates about class and educational access, though, the findings do suggest that many OU students have been socially mobile before they have entered the system. In the first intakes especially, many had been 'warmed up' by teacher education in particular (McIntosh & Woodley 1975). This gives rise to a question not found in the conventional discussions about access, either in popular or in academic discussions - why should the socially mobile (not the 'working class') want to enter a distance teaching university?

Exercise 1

Just to test your own understanding and to get you thinking:

· 1. What do the OU studies indicate are the problems of measuring the social class of students?

· 2. Why should people who have already been socially mobile want to get a degree?


Before coming to that issue, it is important to mention another neglected aspect of the question of access. What happens to unqualified students once they have gained access? If unqualifed or 'working class' students enter the OU only to drop out or fail at the first hurdles, the cause of open-ness has hardly been advanced. The early planners simply assumed this would not happen (a) from a strategic desire not to dwell on any likely problems, (b) because they had already taken some steps to attract an overwhelmingly well-qualified intake, and (c) because they believed that the new pedagogy embodied in a distance system was capable of catering for a wide range of student 'entry characteristics'. There was a real concern about gross levels of drop-out because this affected the overall cost-effectiveness of the enterprise, but the composition of drop-out was of less importance. Given the peculiar ideology of educational open-ness, that has long stopped short at concern with access alone, there was little public interest either.

Nevertheless, some simple statistics of student progress revealed a familiar pattern: differentials (at graduation) are detectable between qualified and unqualified entrants (62 per cent of the former gained a degree but only 40 per cent of the latter), and between occupational groups (seven out of ten teachers are likely to graduate, and nearly as many 'housewives', but only four in ten 'clerical and office workers', and three in ten manual workers) (Woodley 1981).

There is evidence here for a familiar picture of considerable absolute success (large numbers of people do benefit), but with marked differentials according to the usual factors of "social background" (some groups clearly benefit more than others). The skillful OU press releases which appear every year, with stories of spectacular individual success, are not untrue - but they are not exactly accurate in depicting the reality of the OU system. There are sufficient atypical cases to sustain a misleading public image of confidence in the OU system to 'overcome' educational disadvantage, but, once again, it helps enormously if students have already overcome any intial disadvantages before entering the system.

For the disadvantaged, access is not the only issue, since about half (on average) of those admitted do not graduate. There is a danger here that '...the Open University's open door will become a revolving door which will rapidly deposit many disadvantaged students back on the pavement' (McIntosh & Woodley op.cit.).


Official data about occupational destinations of OU students are vague and non-comparable. There are good reasons for this to some extent: adult students are already in the occupational system (even if unemployed), and thus subject to additional determinants of their ultimate occupational status. In particular, many will be 'occupationally mature' and thus unlikely to experience much further mobility. Hence one conventional measure of open-ness - the extent to which educational qualification leads to real social mobility - is difficult to apply to this particular case.

Surveys of OU graduates report important levels of occupational change, and other apparent effects concerned with status rather than class, but it is impossible to tell if these data indicate social mobility in the conventional sense - for example, 66 per cent had reported some or all of the benefits listed as 'better pay, promotion, or a new job'(Swift 1980). This imprecision may be a result of the market research orientation of the research strategy, which was always concerned to identify any kind of marketable positive effects however vague - but a more interesting possibility arises. Perhaps this research, flawed as it is, has uncovered a possibility specific to the kind of distance education embodied in the OU system.


It is quite possible that the pursuit of this possibility owes more to the polemical desire (outlined in the Introduction)to find a definite example of 'closure' than to any 'real' developments. Certainly, it is not possible to fully justify the argument, due to limitations of the data and the constraints of time and space in this paper. Nevertheless, the grounds for the possibility of a 'closed' outcome arise best from considering the case of the teachers in the OU student body (a group ranging from 40 per cent of the intake in 1971 to 18 per cent in 1984). Many of these teachers had achieved a level of social mobility before entering the OU system, and it is possible that a major motive for entering the OU could have been the desire to achieve a degree to consolidate their status, to participate in
that movement, begun  in 1972, to make teaching an all-graduate profession.

Underneath the rhetoric of 'skill levels', it is possible to see the move towards an all-graduate profession as a 'closure device' in Parkin's (ambiguous) formulation, (Parkin 1979, Barbalet 1982, Murphy 1986), one energised 'from below', in the interests of improving the market position of teachers, and 'from above', by a State increasingly involved in the regulation of numbers entering the profession. As a closure device, the move toward graduate status has a major drawback, compared with the use of an official register, for example - present non-graduate incumbents experience something akin to 'status discrepancy'. The profession is divided by the strategy into 'core' and 'peripheral' groups, according to whether or not one possesses the credential (Hopper, 1972 offers a preliminary general discussion of these possibilites).

Older members become increasingly marginalised, in status terms, as the new requirements have an effect on entry. In these circumstances, a combination of 'status anxiety' and the existence of a new opportunity to acquire the desired credential could explain the substantial return to higher education of large numbers of adult teachers, both to In-Service degree courses - and to the OU. Again, Hopper's work provides some clues (see Hopper & Osborn 1975).


Hopper and Osborn began to try to grasp the motivations of OU students specifically in these terms (Hopper & Osborn 1974), but a more important implication (for this paper) arises for the issue of credentialism and credentialist closure in the Weberian tradition mentioned already. Even here, the case of distance education seems to break out of the usual questions and analyses. The usual discussions foreground the ways in which credentials operate at the level of first entry to a profession, for example, but it is clear that credentialism can also operate post hoc, as it were, that incumbents can acquire credentials after they have gained entry to a profession - or they can now, increasingly, thanks to the OU.

The implications of post hoc credentialism of this kind for the 'tightening bond' debate have been little discussed. A neglected effect might well be the consolidation of a semi-profession like teaching, involving the mobility of marginalised members from periphery to core membership. To tackle these issues necessarily involves the (not uncritical) use of unfashionable functionalist analyses like Hopper's, or the heavily debated work of Parkin, or, worse still, perhaps, a tenuously eclectic combination of different problematics (2). Despite the main title of this section, the more respectable Oxford Social Mobility findings ignore these issues, focusing instead on class mobility and 'forward-facing' credentialism (and on the very general type of closure theory rather than the newer more specific formulations).


To leap several more steps to what can only be a speculative conclusion, then, it seems possible that the OU might have contributed at least as much to a closure of professions like teaching as to a new
opening of them to previously disqualified entrants from below, which is still the public 'good side' of the discussion. Ironically, many OU students depended for their first upward moves on teaching being a non-graduate profession, and on it being a relatively open one in social class terms, but this avenue is no longer available. As the previous discussion has indicated, the route to acquiring a degree as a credential in order to enter the teaching profession is not likely to be as easy, even at the OU, for a new generation of relatively unqualified 'working class' candidates.


The fate of the other underprivileged group discussed - women - can only be the subject of speculation too. Women do seem to do better than men in the OU system, achieving success rates some 4-9 per cent above those of their male counterparts (with some of the higher rates in maths and science) (Griffiths 1979), but they are also more 'middle class' and more qualified than their male counterparts to begin with (McIntosh 1975). Some element of a notion of 'counterbalance' (to refer to the discussion in Goldthorpe)in terms of access to the OU between different underprivileged groups arises in Woodley's comment that 'If the Open University had been less successful in attracting women, it would have appeared more successful in attracting those with low initial qualifications' (Woodley 1979).

It was largely assumed that the benefits of graduation would be the same for women as for men, but there is no actual evidence for this, and some reason to believe that female graduates at the OU may suffer extra levels of discrimination as female graduates elsewhere suffer, compared with men. A general survey reported that women enjoyed certain benefits from OU graduation - 29 per cent reported starting a new career, and 36 per cent of the 'housewives' in the sample have entered or re-entered the waged occupation system since graduating (Griffiths op.cit) - but it is not clear that this is upward mobility. Recent discussions indicate a number of possible outcomes of increasing the numbers of female graduates:

· an overall real improvement in the mobility of women

· an element of 'counterbalance' where real improvements for female graduates are achieved at the expense of chances for non-graduates, including male non-graduates

· most pessimistic of all, the growth of a female-dominated 'qualified and flexible reserve, thus relieving organizations of some of the need to retain a full-time skilled "core" labour force' (Crompton & Sanderson 1986).

Whatever the outcome, the lesson, that previous studies have generalized unwisely, on the basis of male experience, will have to be drawn for optimistic assumptions about the benefits of graduation for females from the OU too.


The discussions above have offered only some speculative possibilities, designed to illustrate that the official definitions, and the carefully cultivated public relations exercises, conceal a more complex reality.

It has already been suggested that the characteristic open-ness in access is widely misunderstood in political terms, and that it 'worked' only in the favourable circumstances of never having had to be implemented. The early and continuing success of the OU owes much, perhaps everything, to the previous inequalities of the British education system. These guaranteed a pool of able, motivated, but insufficiently qualified students ready to seize the opportunity offered by the new extension of access. Demand seems to have been fed by a credentialist pressure, a 'tightening bond' operating 'backwards' on the existing members of semi-professions, or by a process involving 'status anxiety' and 'legitimate innovation' to solve it, especially, perhaps, for the very successful group of female students the OU was fortunate to attract (Hopper 1981). Yet none of these factors are seen as crucial for educational technology (the official account of the success of the OU system)

EDUCATION 2: COURSE DESIGN) or for the 'spontaneous philosophy' of public commentary.

It looks like the characteristics of the OU system 'themselves' are responsible for success, for attracting and motivating students. It is also worth drawing attention to the crucial role of the part-time Regional Staff, who have been largely ignored in the formal descriptions of the system. Even the OU's first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Walter Perry acknowledges that the OU's success depends to a large extent on these being available in suitable numbers, and with suitably high qualifications - as a peripheral group of academic labour.

There are 'academic' and 'practical' reasons for restoring the omitted parts of the story, and denying the field to purely abstract, design-led, accounts. The academic ones have been hinted at above, and revolve around the need to preserve the totality (however conceived) against the imperialistic tendencies of partial accounts, especially 'scientism'.

The practical ones are just as important - the OU is widely admired and widely imitated, but it is a mistake to consider it as a purely formal system which can be copied and exported. This is a tendency in educational technology, which also copied the formal characteristics of successful teaching in its earlier manifestations, and discovered real inadequacies when 'applying' those techniques to large-scale university level teaching (3). The OU's success lies in the undiscussed and sometimes still undisclosed activities of the peculiarly motivated and educationally competent (instrumentally) students who make up its graduates, and the uncomplaining and self-blaming students who fail and drop out in large numbers, but in an inconspicuous way. Important aspects of the teaching system correspond to and confirm these student characteristics: these are not the formal design characteristics of educational technology, but unintended or emergent aspects which often act against the official educational goals of the system. Until this articulation is understood of successful student behaviour, the social and political system, and the actual operations of the teaching system, there can be no guarantee that the success of the OU will transfer to any other student population either in Britain or elsewhere.


 (1) This point will take time to argue, and it is developed fully only in the book (Harris 1987). The strategic interest in open-ness arises from a desire to attract as wide an audience or market as possible, in order to gain cost advantages, as well as to appeal to socialist or liberal political publics. OU planners were reluctant from an early stages to attract too many 'high risk' students, though, and they pursued a variety of policies designed to minimise the intake of such students: targetting 'suitable' students in advertising, counselling 'unsuitable' applicants, and, ultimately, devising a way to advance the date of application of 'suitable' students by a weighting scheme, in order to allow such students to 'queue-jump'. Perry (1976) discusses the first two policies. The third one was prepared but never used, since, in effect, the first two had worked so well!

· (2) The theoretical resources used to effect the incorporation of these different works are found in 'critical theory'. Althusserians in particular have found critical theory to be 'eclectic' in Therborn's phrase (Gramscians have disliked it more for its anti-activist stance). A brief defence of the approach for this project might include the necessity to rely on existing and partial work from a variety of sources in a new field, and the need to synthesise the different findings to 'preserve the totality'.

· (3) Before the OU, much educational technology had been developed in very different contexts - in small-scale experimental settings, or in industrial or military training exercises. The characteristics of these contexts became attached to the techniques themselves in some abstracted ('reified') sense, whereas it could be argued that the social relations of the original context provided these characteristics - especially the favorable motivations of the learners. One example in particular showed the effects of context. Assessment in training contexts could take a 'criterion-referenced' form, since the aim was to get as many successes as possible - but in a public university setting, certain 'acceptable distributions' of grades had to be achieved. Techniques of assessment suitable for the first context had to be altered substantially for the second - assessment, it became clear, was not an abstract matter of 'diagnosing difficulties'. Very few of the early beliefs of the educational technologists now survive intact at the OU (see ON DISTANCE EDUCATION 2) - yet outside bodies till admire and imitate what they take to be good practice based on those old techniques - including many of the bodies associated with the expansion of the UK higher education system.


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