The best and worst of the OU

I have been a long-time admirer of the Open University; my mother completed a degree with them when I was a child and another of my relatives was one of the first ever cohorts of OU students. At a recent conference a presentation on the OU’s new “Science Investigations” module* was truly inspiring – the notion of involving novice scientists dispersed across the planet in collaborative experiments shows real vision.

The ERA allows for legal use of TV and radio programmes

At the same time, however, there is something about the OU that I have found increasingly frustrating. As a frequent user of multimedia clips in my teaching, I take advantage of the Educational Recording Agency (ERA) licensing scheme that permits educators to hold copies of TV and radio programmes specifically for teaching purposes and provided that they adhere to a number of straightforward rules regarding both the storage and use of the material (I have written about the merits of the ERA licensing scheme).


For some reason, however, programmes that are produced by the OU fall outside the ERA scheme. To hold and to show OU broadcasts you need a different licence. I imagine the source of this anomaly may be historical – the OU may have set up their arrangement with other institutions before the ERA scheme was developed (I speculate, I don’t have any data on this). Unlike the ERA scheme, there is an annual fee (of about £30) to hold a copy of an OU programme and if you decide you no longer want to use the programme then you need to physically return your copy to them. For a number of reasons, which I will outline below, it strikes me that this arrangement is increasingly anachronistic.

The OU run their own off-air scheme, distinct from the ERA

What brings this issue into sharp focus for me is the increasing number of programmes that are branded as OU/BBC co-productions. If these fell within the ERA scheme I would happily use clips of all of the following co-productions within my teaching:

Bang Goes the Theory
The Cell (3-part series)
The Gene Code (2-part series)
Mental: A History of the Madhouse and Sectioned
Justice: A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century (and associated Justice lectures)
Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS?
Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life
Inside the Ethics Committee (Radio 4)
For the most part I would be looking to use a clip of perhaps 2 or 3 minutes in each case, rather than showing a full episode (though there may be an exception here for Adam Rutherford’s excellent series The Cell and The Gene Code).
The popular series Coast, and Jim Al-Khalili’s current series Shock and Awe: the story of electricity  are also OU/BBC co-productions but don’t really fit with my teaching which focuses on bioethics and/or molecular biology.
It has to be said that the list above represents, from my perspective, some of the very best science and ethics TV that has been produced in recent years. If the OU have been responsible for these productions, you may argue, why shouldn’t they receive appropriate remuneration?


Firstly, I would argue that the Open University ARE receiving substantial benefit for any costs they incur in making these programmes. The programmes themselves and the associated BBC websites are branded with the OU logo. Links through to OU courses are provided from the BBC site. If you respond to the offer of merchandise associated with any of these series (e.g. the evolutionary poster offered with Charles Darwin programme or the chromosome fridge magnets for the Gene Code series) then you receive post and e-mail alerts advertising their courses. Such opportunities to advertise their wares are deserved as recompense for the effort put into making the programmes, though they are an unusual bonus on the commercial-free BBC. I have heard these programmes described by OU staff at conferences as “loss leaders” – a reflection that they know within the organisation that they are receiving benefit in kind from the programmes.
Secondly, and again I speculate here as I don’t have access to the figures, it is highly likely that the OU would recoup more money by being within rather than outwith the ERA scheme. As indicated, there are a large number of programmes I am not using due to the additional fees they would incur under the present arrangement. If these were within the scheme then the OU would recoup some money that they are not currently getting. Rationalisation of the licensing, I feel sure, would also lead to a substantial reduction in administration costs.
Thirdly, the restraints on use of OU programmes seems to be in sharp contradiction to other developments such as their “OpenLearn” initiative  and the Open University on iTune U. At a time when the OU are at the forefront of the development of open access to educational materials, the retention of the separate licensing scheme is outmoded. If you have influence with them – please argue the case for joining the ERA scheme.
(* Note added 9th December 2011: an account of David Robinson’s work has recently been published in Bioscience Education)
The opinions shared in the post are those of the author and are not necessarily representative of his institution or any committee on which he may serve.


  1. The excellent Frozen Planet series which completed its run on the BBC last week, is yet another example of the disturbing trend towards OU “co-production” of mainstream science programmes. According to the current rules no school or university can use this programme in their teaching without paying a specific licence fee to the OU. For the reasons outlined in the main post I remain convinced that this is a short-sighted position.

  2. Update: It has just been announced that the Open University has joined the ERA scheme, with effect from 1st July 2013. This is excellent news – well done to everyone who was involved in making this a reality.

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