Studying with the Open University

10 minute read

Lots of people (at least 2!) have asked how it works, what I’ve thought of it, how much it’s cost (although this obviously is a moving target and presents a very different picture since the introduction of tuition fees) and how I’ve found it for IT so I thought I’d gather my thoughts here.


Word of warning first - like many of my endeavours I’ve not done this in a thoroughly conventional manner (although it’s perhaps worth nothing that, while offering support and advice to keep you away from the rocks, the OU is fully supportive of eccentric choices) so you might not want to follow my example too closely. Never one to do things in the ‘correct order’ - where’s the fun in that?! - having started conventionally enough by taking an experimental level 1 course to see how I’d get on, I then moved straight to my first level 3 course (last opportunity to do so before it was withdrawn, it’s a bit like logic) before taking the prerequisite level 2 programming course that underpinned it (it’s ok - I’d been getting paid for writing software for years so I knew enough to blag it) and I’m finishing in much the same style having done my ‘final’ project based heavily on databases and data modelling and am now preparing to take what will, barring unforeseen circumstances, be my final course module to count towards my degree course - the level 3 database module. *ahem*


Oh, sorry - the Open University’s courses are classified by level (in my mind roughly equivalent to the year in which you’d encounter them in a traditional full time study pattern) as well as being worth a set number of credit points. Qualifications are gained by accruing a set number of credits (generally from a list of specific course modules) at particular levels. An average undergraduate course module is worth 30 credits, with some doubling up to 60, and short courses weighing in at 10 each. 360 credits are required for an honours degree.

Level 1 courses are the easiest, designed to help introduce you to study at university level as well as giving you a feel for how things are done at the OU. These course module results are of the pass/fail variety rather than being fully graded and do not count towards your degree classification (assuming it’s a degree you’re after - other qualifications are available and some people join just to study a specific module or even as a way of meeting people with similar interests). They are not usually exam based. A maximum of 120 credits at this level can be counted towards an honours degree but in practice it’s likely to be 60 or fewer (I have 40 - I blame my low boredom threshold).

Level 2 courses are the next step up, tougher (or “more interesting” from the point of a view of a hopeless overachiever) than level 1 courses but not as difficult as level 3. Unless you’ve picked an even weirder route than mine, it’s likely that most of your degree course points will be gathered from level 2 courses (although an even 120-120-120 split1 looks as though it’s becoming a more common option). Results are graded Distinction then pass grades 2 thru 4; these count towards your final classification.

Level 3 courses are the hardest undergraduate modules, intended to be taken after the level 2 work is complete. You will need a minimum of 120 credits at this level, 30 of which are likely to come from a mandatory project course designed to be tackled last. Courses at this level are graded - Distinction, 2, 3, 4 as per level 2 - and the results are heavily weighted when calculating your degree classification so don’t rush.

Is it expensive?

Kinda. It’s a lot cheaper than the conventional route plus I’m holding down a full-time job while I’m studying. Things are different now since the introduction of tuition fees although the OU has avoided charging the maximum permissible fee of £9,000 per year, opting instead for £5,000 in order to keep things as affordable as possible (so £15k for all 360 credits - the equivalent of 3 years’ full time study) with course modules charged on a pro rata basis relating to the number of credits up for grabs (120 credits = 1 year = £5k). At least the change means that part-time students have access to the student loans system that was previously reserved for full-time study.

Wikipedia calculated the cost of an honours degree in 2009-10 as somewhere between £3,780 and £5,130, which sounds about right. Inflation means that prices are bound to rise year-on-year but when I first worked out whether this was a viable option, I reckoned that the pre-tuition fee cost would be around £7,500 if I had find all the money myself over 6-7 years. Happily my employer offers a sponsorship scheme where they pay a majority share of the cost of an undergraduate qualification so I haven’t had to throw all my savings at the project after all.

What’s their IT stuff like then?

Pretty good and improving, however it does tend to suffer from the fairly common university problem that the field is changing so quickly that by the time course material is developed, tested and released it already feels it little dated. Some courses are brilliant - despite low expectations, I really enjoyed the (sadly now defunkt) mandatory Java/OO course and found it really useful (I’m so keeping all the books). Hopefully the replacement course is just as good.

Oh and obviously you’ll need to bring your own PC (yes PC - there’s more sympathy for Mac users out there now but if you’re taking a module, such as most of the programming courses, where there’s supplied software it will probably only run under Windows); there’s no option to borrow your university’s kit with a distance learning course. As such it helps to be reasonably self-sufficient in terms of installing stuff and keeping your machine running.

How long does it take to get a degree?

That depends. If you can study as a full-time equivalent you should be able to finish it in 3 years just like you would if you were undertaking conventional study. However, if you’re studying alongside work or other commitments it’s going to take significantly longer. I’ve taken 6 years so far and have one more to go.

Can you take as long as you like to complete your qualification?

Unless you’re going for the Open Degree then in practice, probably not. Once a module is withdrawn, it can only be counted as a specified module (as opposed to a free choice option) for up to 8 years from the last presentation date. Then if, like mine, your qualification hits end-of-life, you’re given a deadline - generally a few years ahead - to complete it or, if you’re not far enough into it for that to be viable, your best option is to transfer to its replacement.

Wait, stuff gets withdrawn?

Yep, but don’t panic - it’s not like MSDN certification that has to be constantly kept up to date, once you’ve been awarded a qualification it’s yours to keep. To stop things from getting too out of date individual modules and even whole qualifications are withdrawn from time to time and replaced with fresh options.

The new version of my qualification looks less open-ended (less opportunity to explore at will but more guidance is no bad thing - trying to plan my own route was a nightmare at times, I caught myself a few times on the verge of asking for extra credit for working through it) and has clearer career-oriented pathways such as “Software and solutions development” and “Digital technologies and networking”.

Any tips?

Think twice before including short courses in your degree programme - they’re interesting and fun but a lot of work for a meagre 10 credits. And when it says “don’t take 2 short courses at once” they’re not kidding - the assignment hand-in dates are identical so getting everything done on time is a killer. Take it from someone who ignored these rules. Twice. (Yes, I know but I really wanted the intermediate qualification that came with completing the 6 short courses but didn’t want it to take forever.)

Read the student reviews when choosing which module to study, especially where there is more than one as it gives a good impression of what people thought of the course. Although do bear in mind that courses change over time so older comments might not be fully relevant (especially true for comments on first runnings of a course). Buying past exam papers from the Students Association is also a great way of working out what the course is really all about.

Was it all worth it?

I think so. If I have to go job hunting again, I’ll finally have a useful qualification to back up my industry experience. With developers in demand at the moment it’s not really needed as there’s more emphasis on experience and demonstrable skills but whenever there are more people than jobs, the degree requirement sneaks back into the “must-have” column again on most job ads. Employers are said to look favourably on the initiative and effort required to gain a major qualification alongside full-time work so this might be enough to tip the balance my way in the event of a close call.

Even though I started this as a fairly cynical exercise in earning award credits as painlessly as possible rather than the sole intention of learning new things, it’s definitely filled in a good few areas of knowledge that I’d missed out on before undertaking university-level study. Plus it must have improved my writing as my grades on project-based modules have got better over time. (I found out that my exam nerves were getting worse over time so have taken to seeking out project-based courses wherever I can; they’re a huge amount of work but at least I can surround myself with the relevant reference material rather than trying to remember vast chunks of it - not my strong suit and not a great measure of applicable knowledge IMHO - in a high pressure environment several months after I first read it.)

Besides, having missed out on my chance of going to university as a teenager due to health issues (my inner book junkie wanted to live among the dreamy libraries2 of Oxford), I needed to prove to myself that I could do this. Projected first class honours from the OU will do nicely.

  1. my split's 40-170-150, I'm complicated/awkward/a glutton for punishment/insane [delete as applicable]
  2. "dreaming spires" are all very well but make for rubbish reading material