The Open University can be saved

The framing of the Peter Horrocks row misses the bigger issue underlying the conflict and the opportunity to sketch out a vibrant future for this important national institution, say Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller

April 16, 2018
open university mirror
Source: Alamy

The Open University has been in the news for the wrong reasons. The story has been characterised as an “academics v boss” battle following a clumsy but revealing statement by Peter Horrocks, its then vice-chancellor, that OU academics “don’t teach”. This ultimately led to his resignation on 13 April after staff tabled a motion of no confidence.

But this framing misses the bigger issue underlying the conflict and the opportunity to sketch out a vibrant future for this exceptionally important national institution. Anyone who has attended one of our tear-jerking, yelp-inducing, recent graduations for our very diverse graduate community knows that the OU carries on doing great things on an amazing scale.

We don’t want to return to old arguments, but rather to shine a light on some fundamental issues, and offer some examples of the kinds of ideas that could take us forward, and see us play an even bigger role in widening participation in higher education.

We have been at the OU since the birth of the internet age. Teaching here has constantly demanded the development of new skills to support learning at a distance and it remains an undisputed world leader in opening access.

Today the OU has more disabled students than all the other UK universities put together and 55 per cent of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Open University is one of the boldest, most imaginative and most successful experiments in education in over a century and we have been honoured to be part of it.

Our most recent staff survey is clear: almost all staff share this pride. So how did we get to a point at which the same survey shows an enormous gulf between academics and the senior management’s vision?

The origins of the problem are “out there”. Recent higher education funding policy changes have been catastrophic in our part of the sector. Part-time student numbers in the UK have dropped 56 per cent since 2010-11, although the OU has not seen quite such a dramatic decline.

Lord Willetts, as universities minister responsible for the funding changes that drove the devastating fall, has since apologised for the shift to loans for all students, describing it as “one of my worst policy decisions”. But you can’t eat apologies.

The crisis in funding has seen senior executives simultaneously introducing reorganisations, swingeing internal cuts and casting around for a new “big idea”.

Feverish excitement about “digital disruption” has been reflected in the enormous investment in FutureLearn, a Mooc platform of mainly free short courses without academic tuition or accreditation. Specialists in digitally mediated distance learning have despaired at the naivety and clumsiness of the senior management’s (and their £2.5 million worth of consultants’) interpretation of the potential that “the digital” holds for an institution like the OU.

We think the idea that we already had was big enough: a university open to all, whoever and wherever they are, with no qualifications required. But, note – a university. Not a school or a college of further education; nor a digital publisher or purveyor of social learning on “hey kids” new platforms. A university is a community of scholarship that has at its core a body of academics who investigate difficult questions (research) and share what they find (teach). You cannot have the second without the first. It is the research practice that generates the authority to assess and award a university degree.

However, the OU’s academics have, as sociologists would put it, become “othered” by senior management and their teams, and of course vice versa.

We have all experienced meetings in which academics have been characterised as recalcitrant dinosaurs who fail to “get with the programme”. Increasingly, senior management have come to view higher education as a problem that needs to be fixed. The value of research as a pursuit has been routinely and fundamentally questioned by senior management. Inevitably many in our academic community have hardened into opposition, without offering much in the way of a pathway out of the intensely difficult financial position that we are in.

But could any university cope with losing a great big slice of its student intake without change?

The easy answer, of course, is that the OU should be made a special case. It should have dedicated funding committed by government to allow it to fulfil its unique role.

Support for that notion has come from all quarters, including, very prominently, the Daily Mail. That would be the right thing to happen.

But with all else that is going on in the sector we believe that our institution should give more to get more from government.

Here we offer just a couple of specific examples of initiatives that the OU could lead on that would serve the whole sector and the wider public good. Building on the OU’s consistent pattern of innovation throughout its history such initiatives could increase the quality of experience of study, and improve the quality of life for overstretched colleagues, right across the sector. They could also support the whole sector in widening participation. Furthermore these ideas also represent investment in innovation and reputation in a sector that has been one of the undisputed success stories of the British economy in the last 25 years.

Student expectations of teaching quality and extent are going up just as academics feel severely overworked. The OU is in a position to provide services to other universities that could ease these pressures. For example: we could produce, maintain and support core online methodology modules right across the curriculum. These “baseline” materials would be designed flexibly so as to support rather than dictate teaching tailored to an individual degree or course needs.

Similarly, our partnership with the BBC could be rethought to convene a world-leading interactive learning resources lab. Think documentaries but with engaging student-driven journeys through the content. These would push the principle of interactivity much further than in current BBC-OU offers, with an editorial line driven by a blend of academic knowledge and identified curriculum needs.

Such resources are also perfectly suited to wider public engagement and debate, and hence a tight mesh with the BBC and Open University’s shared public service missions. A happy by-product would be a concentration of imagination, experiment and talent focused on making academically rooted world-beating interactive media. There has been an intense reaction across the OU to evidence of the senior management team’s failure to understand the foundations of the institution’s greatest strengths.

But after years of imposed reorganisations and cuts, the events of the past two weeks have also energised us, and created an opportunity to refresh our collective thinking about this vital institution’s future.

The dramas of recent weeks have also demonstrated that academics are open to change – whether in the mix and nature of roles or in the shape and design of the curriculum. But these changes have to start from a deep understanding of where the millions of excellent experiences of higher education study have come from.

With the right approach to leadership, the OU is not finished: it has hardly started.

Joe Smith is professor of environment and society at the Open University, where Mark Brandon is a reader in polar oceanography and Martin Weller is professor of educational technology.

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