I dropped out of University after one week.
Here, I talk about my story of how I came to study with the Open University. This article has been written for anyone who might be in a similar position as I once was, along with my experience, so far, with the Open University. It is also aimed at parents of high school students, mature students, and just about anyone who’s interested in the Open University. *Disclaimer: Though I have included some potentially recognisable photographs in this article, I have omitted from explicitly naming either of my previous institutions. My opinions by no means intend to encourage or deter anyone from applying there and should be taken as my own very personal experiences. If you want to make a reliable decision on a potential University option, the best way to go about it is to attend an Open Day in person. Finally, photo credits go to each of the individual sources, which I won’t disclose. Deep breath, here we go…
It began about two years ago, not long after I’d completed a foundation certificate in English Literature at a small college campus in London, that I suddenly fell very ill. Having made it out the other end of a turbulent year, which included losing my old friends and making new ones, commuting a long journey into London on the dreaded Underground, locating my timetabled rooms on a maze-like campus – and being late for a number of them, as well as memorising the contents of some very dense novels, I was relieved to have passed the year. Initially, I was unsure about my college, since was a last-minute decision but by the end of the year, I had come to love the leafy-green campus, with its charmingly old, yet arty hallways, the smell of coffee from the cosy café and small student population. Although I was now allowed entry onto the main course, the only problem was that I couldn’t stay on. Stepping up to the first year of full-time study whilst juggling caring responsibilities at home and commuting across the city would be simply impossible. Something had to give way and so I had successfully applied for another course at a college more close to home, the following autumn.
This one had a much grander reputation and everything was much bigger. The subject blocks, especially the science area, had been heavily invested in. The student population was four times the size of my old place and for the first time, I became acutely aware of existing as a number in an automated money-making system, along with others who were taking out a £9,000/year loan. The corridors in the English department were spacious but dull. The seemingly endless stretch of grey floor tiles, complemented the low ceilings and white-washed, windowless walls, resulting in the appearance of an underground hospital. My first experience of the lecture hall was one that dwarfed me, as dozens of rows of tightly packed seats were designed to accommodate for two-hundred or more students at a time. The long, wooden tables were uncomfortably narrow and because so many of us were crammed in on a row, there was very little elbow room, especially for a leftie like me who failed to get an end seat. I became preoccupied with avoiding barging in on my neighbour’s personal space and resorted to scrawling ugly notes in my lap instead. It all felt incredibly impersonal. Whilst a sense of utter loss and overwhelming depression likely exacerbated my negative perception of the place, there is no doubt that these symptoms certainly fed off the helpless scenario. I started to wish I was back on my previous course. I had failed to fit in with the excessively confident females that dominated my tutor group and after a few days, hadn’t made a single friend. I didn’t belong here. The place seemed cold, highly competitive and unfriendly. Nor could I handle the excessive social interaction and shakey nerves, especially because I had (and still have) crippling social anxiety; a very personal and heavily disguised issue I’m bound by.
I decided that I had to leave, no matter what. At the start of my first tutorial, when the class and tutor was busy re-arranging the tables, I carefully picked up my bag and coat and snuck out into the main corridor. I doubted anyone would notice, at least not immediately, as not only had the administrative chaos invalidated the register, but I was a minute statistic and hadn’t properly spoken to anyone here, save one member of the English department on a campus tour. So long as I pretended to be going somewhere, it was relatively unlikely I’d be stopped. Weaving in and out of postgrads and department staff, I strolled down the flights of stairs, to the ground floor as nonchalantly as I could, and out into the open air. Within a few minutes, I had crossed the concrete campus and made it outside the main entrance gates, never to return again. The following weeks were awful as I spent them breaking the news to my family, who were horrified, upset and disappointed, as well as informing the department of my intention and making financial arrangements for future enrolment on a different course. I also binned my hideously-photographed student ID, as I wouldn’t be needing that again. I was suddenly adrift and for the first time, actually outside the education system. It was entirely down to me, to regain a sense of stability in whatever way possible.
The truth is, right from the moment of walking out of the English department, I knew in my head that my only feasible option would be to study on a distance-learning course, but I knew my family wouldn’t like the idea; you either commit to something properly or don’t bother doing it at all – was their logic. Nevertheless, I spent weeks searching the internet for online courses from bricks-and-mortar institutions, hoping that I could (somehow) pass the idea. Unfortunately, there are not many distance courses for an English student, nor are there many undergraduate options available, as most online courses only accommodate for postgrads. I finally came across the Open University, which is a well-known distance-learning, higher education provider in the United Kingdom. I was delighted to find out they did indeed run an English Literature course and in fact, there were numerous options like combining it with other subjects such as History, Philosophy or Music if I wanted to. I spent a while drawing up tables and making online enquiries (save social phone calls) over different options, before finally deciding on the one course that was best for me. The next problem was trying to convince my parents to support a student finance application for an OU course..! Rather than telling anyone immediately, I held off for months, letting any tensions die down before even suggesting the idea. After about six months, I anxiously took the opportunity to tell my mother when she was in one of her rare happy moods. I was surprised to find out that although she had studied at a London college, she had also completed a short training course with the OU twenty-odd years ago. She quite casually, though not enthusiastically, accepted the idea much to my disbelief and as a result, so did my dad. I wasted no more time, filling in the forms.
Around early September, I received a large package, weighing about five kilograms, with the “Open University” printed on the top. And when I opened it to reveal the contents, I was quite genuinely blown away. Inside, were four thick textbooks, each in a different colour. These were accompanied by four corresponding DVD cases with multiple DVD-ROMs, DVDs and CDs inside. There were two quite heavy illustration books, filled with picture sources to refer to throughout the year, an assignment booklet with a list of essays to complete and finally, a student handbook to help me make sense of the seemingly impossible task which lay ahead. This was my first welcome to my first compulsory module, The Arts Past and Present. A wave of despair washed over me; I didn’t think I could possibly get through this alone and in the space of nine months, on a supposedly part-time basis too! After a sleepless night, I decided against wallowing in self-doubt. The next morning, I flicked through the advice given in the student handbook and added up the total number of pages across the four main textbooks, to work out how much I’d need to complete each day. I was soon on my way, and by the time the course kicked off, I was weeks in advance – very helpful! In week one, I was finally introduced, by email, to my tutor, who would be responsible for marking all my work. And by week nine, I entered my first ninety-minute online tutorial with one other student (the number improved the second time around), for which I was relieved didn’t require a webcam – just a set of headphones, a microphone and good internet access. The monthly essays start off quite short and gradually build up to higher word counts with more challenging questions. These are still entirely manageable though, as on an introductory module it’s assumed you’ve had little to no experience of higher-level education. The content of the textbooks has been consistently interesting and broad. You’re not expected to complete an essay on every chapter of the textbook, which is usually made up of around six separate sections and some essay tasks offer multiple options. I’ve also found that each textbook usually takes around two months study to complete and since starting, I’m now currently working through textbook three of four. Though you are not entirely alone, you are expected to keep on track and maintain your own study schedule (there is also an online weekly planner to help with this) and meet all assignment deadlines. Even this is quite flexible and for most essays, you can ask your tutor for an extension.
I’m pleased to have found the OU and it’s an entirely viable option for anyone struggles with the physical environment and psychological pressures of actually attending a University. If reputation is a concern, you can later apply to an RG institution for a postgrad course; some OU graduates have been gone on to study at Oxbridge. I thoroughly recommend it to any other school leavers, as it’s a well-respected institution with professionally-planned, high-quality materials. I only wish I hadn’t wasted two years after finishing school, yet to discover it in the first place!
I’ll be doing a follow-up post on some key facts and details on studying with Open University, so please do send or email me any questions you have.