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Can full time students succeed in a part time world?

By Carey Stephens

The number of students registered to study at full time intensity was over 28% of all new learners at The Open University in Autumn 2020.

My own Faculty of Business & Law recorded an increase, from Autumn 2019, of almost 200 fulltime intensity students registered on the Business & Management degree.

On first glance it would be easy to attribute the upturn to the pandemic, however, on closer inspection of the data, the picture is one of a steady rise in new fulltime students over the last few years; albeit with a sharper rise in 2020. 

Who are these learners? Why do they choose to study fulltime at an institution known for part time study?

The Open University context – part time study for part time people?

The Open University emerged in the late 1960’s as an institution with a mission to be open to all those who wanted access to higher education and for many years was known for its BBC2 late night television education programmes where ‘mature learners’, studying on a part time basis, would watch academics demonstrating science experiments. 

Technological changes in the late 1990s, started the shift to move learners from a box full of books to online platforms and during the last decade, the introduction of a variable tuition fee structure, UUK (2013) and loan requirement to register for a qualification rather than single modules highlighted the viability of the OU to the fulltime student market.

What do we mean by full time study at the Open University? 

We use the term Flexible Study Intensity (FSI) rather than fulltime because students can come to the OU, study at the intensity level they wish (with the ability to flex), with the support they need to succeed. My study will focus on students who are studying at the same rate (120 credits) as a student taking a 3 year honours degree at a conventional face-to-face university.

What have I done so far? 

My approach so far has been to carry out a short scoping exercise. I examined Autumn 2020 student data to obtain a demographic overview of FSI learners and the qualifications they are embarking on. I aim to study the October 2020 BS (Honours) Business & Management Degree FSI students so this exercise ensured I would have a sufficient dataset. The data also identified my chosen degree to be the second favourite degree for FSI learners, BSc (Honours) Psychology taking the top slot.

The demographic results were surprising as the highest percentage of students was the 30-39 age range. The student session I ran for FSI students in November 2020, elicited feedback from second year students which concurred with Penny’s work on motivation for study (2017), 

‘Career not youth is generally motivation for FSI study. Students are very aware of societal expectations for a degree as a minimum qualification for certain roles, meaning that students want to be able to achieve a degree quickly for promotion or career change.’Johnson & Stephens (2021). 

What will my approach be?

The next stage is to undertake a longitudinal study of the October 2020 FSI Business & Management Degree intake and follow the students as they journey on their chosen pathway and towards their degree. 

A mixed method approach will be used. The students’ academic progress through the degree will be captured and quantitative data analysed to assess retention and pass rates. I also plan to conduct a student survey each year. In this first year I would like to focus on and establish their motivation to study on this pathway and their reasons for embarking on a degree. It is hoped that some of the students would be willing to participate in a focus group so I can gather some rich qualitative data on the student experience.

Finally, it would be useful to include some comparative data but a final decision on what this will consist of is yet to be taken. A previous student cohort, the most popular degree or a cohort of part time learners are the most likely contenders. An update on this will be given in a later blog…

My aim is to inform Faculty module teams on how students experience FSI study and how they can be best supported.

Next steps… I am aiming to share my early findings later this year so watch this space!


This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or The Open University.

Carey Stephens

Carey Stephens

Carey Stephens is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law but currently on secondment as Faculty Lead for the new AL Contract programme.

Carey has been teaching since 2006 and is also an Associate Lecturer on the Undergraduate Business programme and has recently been supporting Apprentices on the CMDA programme.