Profile – Mary Kellett

As the Open University celebrates half a century since its charter, vice-chancellor Mary Kellett tells Paddy Smith what she thinks the next 50 years hold for distance learning

The Open University is one of a kind. It’s a thrusting, ahead-of-its-time institution. Created 20 years before the World Wide Web, it saw a future where learning would be a flexible entity, unshackled from buildings and desks and blackboards. And it continues to push for the future even as the rest of higher education belatedly wakes up to distance learning as a viable alternative to traditional provision.

On 23 April the OU will celebrate its 50th birthday in an environment its founders could never have imagined, but within glimpsing distance of a future educational landscape in which it plays the stalwart veteran rather than the plucky upstart.

Helming the university through the anniversary is vice-chancellor Mary Kellett, whose soft voice belies her conviction in the OU’s aims. Kellett has been with Open for 18 years, and stepped into the VC post in April 2018 following the sudden departure of Peter Horrocks, who was hounded out by a staff revolt over planned budget cuts.

Students are starting to think very differently about what higher education means 

And she will not be in the post long, as her successor is being selected in the coming months. Kellett herself has decided not to run. “I didn’t seek this. It wasn’t something that was ever in the life plan. I was invited to step up when we had a bit of a crisis last April with the leadership. I was happy to do that, but it’s not been something that I would have sought.

“I would love to be in a position to do this. I’d love to be five years younger, and I’d love not to have caring responsibilities because I think it’s an absolute privilege, a dream job. Whoever gets this as the next vice-chancellor… what an honour. It’s the most fantastic institution. But it’s not the right time for me in my life, sadly, because I think I would have loved to do it for longer.

“We’ve got a really bright future and there are loads of things happening for us right now so it’s a brilliant time for someone to come in and take over.”

What qualifications does Kellett think it takes to run the OU? “Whoever it is needs to be a good listener. They need some humility because nobody can do the perfect job. I think they will need courage, bravery, because if we are to continue to be a disruptor for the sector and continue to trailblaze then you have to be willing to take risks and constantly innovate and support that innovation. I don’t know how you could do this job if you don’t share those core values and the mission of the university. It’s probably one of the most amazing missions of any higher education institution that I’m aware of in terms of what we aspire to do not just for students but for society.

“And you need a good business head coming in. It’s a big job. I hope it’s someone experienced and someone who understands distance learning.”

Key facts

Name: Professor Mary Kellett

Establishment: The Open University

Job title: Vice-chancellor

Born: Burnley, Lancashire (age 64)

Education: PhD, Oxford Brookes 

Awards: LFHE: Top Management Programme

Career highlight: The opportunity to serve as vice-chancellor of the Open University 

What would you have done if not education?: Novelist

Best leadership advice: Be authentic – staying true to yourself and your values will bring out your strongest leadership skills. And listen to your colleagues – they are the ones that bring the vision to life

Kellett is steeped in the values of the OU – the university’s mission is ‘open education for all’ – and is clearly passionate about the project, in her own understated way. She has a solid understanding of the context in which the university was born (“we were imagining and creating things other people thought were bonkers”) and a determined attitude towards current competition in the market (“It’s all very well having the tools, but if you don’t have the understanding of how to use those tools to teach effectively in an online environment then you’re still not going to be able to do it”). And she clearly cares about the future of what Harold Wilson called “a university of the air.”

Paradoxically, the ‘bonkers’ concept is now coveted by other universities as they rush to implement virtual learning environments (VLEs) of their own. And it’s no surprise. The mean age of the OU’s student body has dropped “significantly” (to 28) and risks bothering the age range from which universities traditionally recruit their undergraduate intake.

“We’re still not seeing 19-year-old students coming through to the OU,” says Kellett, citing both the lack of a presence in UCAS (the body that manages university selection in the dominant offers-based entry model) and trickle-down expectations of what university attendance should look like. “One of the things I’m trying to do is a bit more of an outreach programme to schools. I mean personally going out to some of the schools, talking to sixth formers and trying to get an understanding of what they see as the future and what our part might be in that.”

And there is further evidence, apart from the falling age of the OU’s students, that cultural attitudes to higher education are changing. “The thing that is really striking a chord for us – and it’s come from nowhere, we’ve done no active marketing for this – is we’ve seen this sudden rise to nearly 30% of our students doing double intensity and being successful at doing it, while working. That is telling me that students are starting to think very differently about what higher education means. Because if you want to work and do double intensity then you’re eschewing that three-year, rites-of-passage type of university experience. You will have heard the government talking about accelerated two-year degrees. This is the equivalent for us, students doubling up.”

The Open University’s Berrill Building

Perhaps that’s not surprising. The OU has kept fees “at rock bottom” at a time when the rising costs of tertiary education are inevitably clashing with questions about value returns for individuals. And the ability to shape studies around a job means learning can be uncoupled from fears of long-term debt. When the university launched 50 years ago, “the concept was alien to a lot of people – our early days were almost proof of concept.”

But the concept was proven, eventually. “It was quite a few decades before other HE providers really started thinking about distance learning, but as soon as they did get into that space, what would differentiate us from them? Why haven’t we been wiped out? Because a face-to-face university can offer both face-to-face and distance learning, so how can we survive?

“I think there are two reasons. One is that we’ve continued to be innovative and continued to be best in class in terms of technological and digital innovation. And that is because we’ve been prepared to invest. I think the research underpins that. I think a lot of other providers won’t do that pedagogical research into best practice and how you can deliver the best offering in an online environment. The idea of putting a PDF up on a website is not distance learning, not in our terms. We’ve kept ahead of the game in terms of what we need to keep doing to show that we’re still pioneers and field leaders in distance learning.”

Kellett paints a picture of the OU as part hunter, part hunted. As the sector earnestly explores distance learning en masse, she champions the university’s unique initiatives. “If you look at what we do in science, the kind of experiments you can do with the Open University with our OpenSTEM Labs are absolutely phenomenal and better than you could get with any university, even Harvard, face-to-face. From your kitchen table you can be doing an experiment on one of the moons in space. Or we’ve got incredible technology with our virtual microscopes and some of the chemical experiments that can be done virtually. It’s phenomenal what you can do literally from your laptop. And we can do that for our students anywhere, any time.”

But her enthusiasm for such projects is checked by pragmatism. “We’re still the Rolls-Royce end when actually a Mini will do. I’m not saying we should always be thinking about the Mini but the Rolls-Royce is going to take twice as long. Some of what I’ve been trying to do is get us much more into the real world in terms of learning. It’s moving so fast that we can’t afford to take too much of an indulgent length of time over producing our content.”

This means streamlining the production of new degree qualifications, a process that has traditionally taken three to four years. “You can still be best-in-class but you can move with smarter ways of doing things and different methods, different ways of thinking, of knowledge creation, I think it’s essential if we are going to stay ahead of the game in terms of distance learning.”

Filming in the early days of the OU

And that means looking outside the ordinary realms of UK academia. Kellett acknowledges that the profession isolates itself from external and global influences to its detriment, espousing “being open to experiences and understanding and learning from them”. To illustrate, she turns to the OU’s MOOC (massive open online courses) channel, FutureLearn.

“FutureLearn, as with all of our things at the OU, that’s evolving too. That was very new and disruptive five years ago but there are other big platforms like that now. That needs to keep on evolving too. So you probably know – it’s public knowledge – that we’re looking for a strategic partner to take FutureLearn to new spaces where we can’t take it on our own. We’ve got an investment pitch out at the moment. 

We don’t know who or what that would be. It would be a commercial or strategic partner that could bring things that the OU doesn’t have – access to other markets and global reach. If we find the right partner, that will hopefully be another ‘watch this space’ moment with the way FutureLearn may really take off.”

Do other universities see the OU as a threat? “Maybe some would, but I think there is a more generic threat in terms of the way students may want to access higher education in the future. There’s the sheer cost of getting a degree, but the world is changing very fast and the length of time to be out of work just learning may be a very expensive premium in the future. If you look at how fast things like AI and machine learning are moving forwards and what jobs and careers there might be in the future, I think students will want to get into the world of work as soon as they can, so a combination of being able to work and learn at the same time is very powerful.

“Whether or not people think that’s what the OU does, and therefore that we’re the biggest threat, it’s possible, but the bigger threat is that this is coming as a different way of learning in the future – lifelong learning.”

Could that different way of learning usurp the OU in unexpected ways? A plethora of free-access learning tools – even, or notably, YouTube – are just waiting to be organised into a viable threat, aren’t they?

I think students will want to get into the world of work as soon as they can, so a combination of being able to work and learn at the same time is very powerful

“I think it’s an exciting development to think of where we could be going in the future because knowledge should be free, surely. Access to knowledge is almost akin to a human right. What I think you won’t ever have with that kind of free knowledge and access is the application of knowledge. I remember learning facts being so important when I was at school, but nobody needs to do that now – you can have knowledge at the flick of a switch. So don’t invest the time in seeking knowledge, invest the time in understanding and knowing how to apply knowledge. That’s what higher education is, that’s what we’re in the business of doing.”

For all that talk about free access to education, Kellett is also adamant that universities must be run along commercial lines. “That doesn’t mean to say you have to make some stinking profit and take the profit if you are successful. You reinvest that back into the student support and the student experience. Everybody wants to run a successful commercial operation and these days universities are businesses. We work a lot on partnerships and enterprise and other aspects beyond just the traditional tutoring of the students. Is that a good way to go? I think it’s inevitable. It’s desirable. But it can open the way to exploiting profits. I don’t like the idea of building up huge profits and that not benefiting the students who are going through this generation. 

If you build up big war chests of profit from these students going through now, they’re not going to profit; someone else is. It should be very fluid. We all need reserves, we all need headroom and we need to operate at a small surplus to make sure we are successful, within reason.”

An Open University graduation in 2012

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she does not agree with the heavy investment other universities have made, and continue to make, in new buildings. “Ultimately the student is paying for these buildings. If you’re starting to build now, in 2019, and thinking of 10-year capital estate planning, I would really question that. We’ve got a most amazing library that isn’t that old, that cost a lot. I wasn’t vice-chancellor when that decision was taken, but if you asked me that question now I wouldn’t invest that sort of money because most of our students access what they want from their laptop. It’s lovely to have books and the respect that comes with books, but that is not going to be the future.

“We have a thousand postgrads, a lot of whom are on campus a lot of the time, the staff need it, but I wouldn’t invest huge amounts in a whizzy library. You want something functional that serves a purpose. It’s a personal view and it may not be reflected across other universities but I do not think it’s the right thing to be investing in bricks and mortar, other than the essentials, for the kind of higher education learning of the future.

“Most of our students are probably learning on their mobile phones while they’re on the bus going home. They will be accessing the library from their mobile phones, downloading articles and reading them.”

That may be the case for the OU, but what about other universities? “If you look at the scary demographics of the way our world population is going to explode, particularly from around the late 2020s onwards, how are we going to educate the sheer explosion in numbers of those next generations. We will not be able to build buildings fast enough and put up universities fast enough. The population explosion is really going to go phenomenally. The only way you can do it is through distance learning. I was talking to a vice-chancellor of a university in Pakistan and we think we’re big with 175,000 students – they’ve got 1.5 million students. How can you support that through bricks-and-mortar buildings? So distance learning has got a very big part to play in the future and it will bring the cost of education down to levels that I think the world can afford.”

I think there is a more generic threat in terms of the way students may want to access higher education in the future 

Doesn’t that create tiered learning? “This is a fact of life. You could say that people would automatically assume private schools where you pay a premium must be better because it’s costing more. Some are, some definitely are not. There are some very, very good state schools and some very, very good private schools, but equally poor in both. But the perception is that this is a premium, so there is a perception that if you go to Oxbridge or a Russell Group university it’s better than going to a post ’92 [university]. The reality isn’t always the same and if you look at the world of employment it probably wouldn’t stack up. Success is necessarily linked, in some professions, some areas, but if you’re looking at the world of work we’re moving into – robots, AI, machine learning – you might not necessarily be getting that kind of education. 

“I think there is a stigma around distance learning at the moment, still, anywhere in the world, but I honestly believe that will radically change in the next three to five years. When you get to the point where 18- and 19-year-olds are making a proactive choice – a first choice, rather than a forced choice – to do distance learning, that’s when you see that dial really begin to move. At the moment I would agree that there is a perception that it is somehow an inferior education. It shouldn’t be.

“We’re an odd mixture of a university that is on the one hand incredibly disruptive, innovative, groundbreaking given where we’ve come from and what we do, but on the other hand quite traditional.”

And to think it’s only just got started. 

Mary Kellett on…

Students as customers
“You can trace that back to the fee review change in 2012. When 75 to 80% of university funding was coming from the government, universities were not as keen as they should have been about thinking about their students as customers, because actually the government was paying. When that flipped on its head so almost 75 to 80% is now student fees, clearly universities had to think about students as, although I don’t quite like the term, customers.”

Value for money
“In terms of value for money, students were paying a lot out of their own pocket taking out loans for their student experience so we had to wake up, all of us, all universities, to actually think about whether they were actually getting value for money. Are we giving them as much as we should be and as much as they’re entitled to, and they have every right to expect for a quality student experience. All universities went through that. We did to a certain extent, maybe not quite as much because our students have always been very important to us, hence why we kept our fees so very low.”

The student experience
“We’ve probably had more focus on student experience than we’ve ever had before and certainly in the past two or three years. Certainly when I took over in this role I changed the vice-chancellor’s portofolios and created one which was just PVC students. The focus for this pro-vice-chancellor is our students: all the things that matter to them, all the things that we should be thinking about. That is that person’s responsibility. That’s an example of where we would have shifted our emphasis. We spend a lot of time surveying students to try to find out what it is that they need from us, particularly as we’re open access so many of our students come in with very little experience of HE and they need a lot more help and support. That interaction with students is very important otherwise we couldn’t enable them to succeed. In a sense, we’ve perhaps always had a slightly different relationship with students because of being open access, but I would say that we also, along with other universities, have upped our game in terms of student support.”

“I wouldn’t describe us a research-intensive university. We’re not like the Russell Group universities. We do do some very good research but it’s in pockets so some of our research is world-leading, obviously our space research is fantastic – we’re the third biggest in space in the whole of the UK. And some of our other areas are world-leading. Our efforts are increasingly in the research that understands the learner, the needs of the learner and supporting those needs so you’ll see a lot more of our research that’s applied in educational pedagogy. Whether that’s typical with the sector, I’m not sure. I don’t think the Russell Group universities change very much in that regard. I think they still see research as being a the pinnacle of what they do. I think research is very important. I wouldn’t like to see universities exist in the future without research. I think that would be a slow death in terms of our progress and knowledge progress, but you do have to get the balance right. I think we’re probably just about in the right space for the amount of investment we give to each.”

Student mental health
“We all have a duty to start looking more closely at this. The OU has a very large number of students with mental health issues – one in 10 of our students has a mental health issue. We have the largest number of students in the UK with mental health issues. If you look at the kind of students who come to us many of whom haven’t got prior HE experience, some haven’t got a single A-level. Many of them have got families, some of them are trying to hold down their job. Many of them will have debt. We’ve got very advanced digital tools that enable us to know exactly when, and for how long, students engage with the VLE. We’re using AI a lot more so we’re tracking it literally 24/7, so we will get early flags and early triggers so we are likely to know if there is a problem earlier.”

Duty of care
“Should students who are adults just sort themselves out? I’m in the camp where we absolutely have a duty of care to those students. They’re studying with us, they’re on that journey with us, and their wellbeing is absolutely our business. So we do provide support. We have Big White Wall [an on-demand counselling service] so we have access to online counselling round the clock. A student experiencing difficulties can get help immediately. And, yes, that costs quite a lot, but we do invest in that for student welfare. We also look at how we can reduce students’ stress if some of that stress is caused by the processes of learning and the student experience. I think with distance learning, it’s actually easier to support students with mental health issues, because you’re in more constant dialogue with them. It’s a bit like teenagers being constantly plugged into their mobile phones. Parents are probably more in contact with their children than they ever were, so you’ll know about things earlier, or hope you will. 

I think mental health is a real issue for higher education. I’m glad that there’s more profile on it now and that the government has started to talk about it.”

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