V-c under fire for claiming Open University academics ‘don’t teach’

Peter Horrocks’ comments about development of learning materials branded ‘an attack on OU staff and the institution itself’

March 26, 2018
Peter Horrocks, vice-chancellor, The Open University

The vice-chancellor of The Open University has apologised after claiming that the institution’s distance learning model had allowed academics “to get away with not being teachers for decades”.

Responding to a question during a filmed discussion with OU students, Peter Horrocks claimed that scholars at the institution’s Milton Keynes headquarters typically “aren’t responsible” for delivering tuition based around teaching materials that they had developed.

Arguing that the best associate lecturers based around the country who offer tutorial support should be able to make improvements to teaching materials that students were struggling with, Mr Horrocks added: “The people who work here [in Milton Keynes] should be bloody well teaching, they should be teaching directly.

“It’s ridiculous that they’re spoken about as teaching when they are writing, that's not teaching. And they used to teach in residential [universities] and this university has allowed central academics to get away with not being teachers for decades.”

Although the comments were welcomed in the student forum, they have provoked a strong backlash from OU staff.

Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at the university, branded the remarks “an attack on OU staff and the institution itself”.

“For decades the OU fought to get distance [education] recognised as high-quality and as good (if not better than) [face-to-face] teaching. To have this dismissed so readily by our own [vice-chancellor] seems like a betrayal,” he said on Twitter. “Creating distance [education] materials is not just writing, any more than [face-to-face] teaching is just talking. It is informed by pedagogic research, and experience in learning.”

Mark Brandon, reader in polar oceanography, added: “When staff hear our vice-chancellor saying that what we do isn’t teaching, it doesn’t make sense. At the most trivial level, we have stacks of national and international awards saying it is and we are good at it.

“At a higher level, people are legitimately asking that after three years in post, ‘Does he understand what we do?’ I can’t believe he doesn’t; he does have an executive with decades of OU experience.”

The row has erupted as the OU launches a voluntary redundancy programme as part of a restructuring project that aims to save £100 million from the institution’s £420 million annual budget.

In a message to staff, Mr Horrocks apologised for his “careless language”.

“Your academic writing creates our outstanding learning materials and they are the backbone of our distance learning model, informed by scholarly pedagogy, that supports our students,” he wrote. “I know that beyond your renowned writing are a wide range of other high-quality teaching and support activities that contribute to our students’ learning.

“My comments were attempting to explain to students that I believe that we can build consistently on the many innovative ways in which central academics are already interacting directly with large numbers of students. I want us to rekindle and extend the benefits of academic colleagues having a more direct relationship with students, something pioneered in the early days of the university through residential schools and tutoring.”

Mr Horrocks added that he had “overstepped” the mark and that his comments “did not show appropriate respect”.

One academic, who did not wish to be named, said that Mr Horrocks’ apology had failed to allay academics’ concerns.

“To apologise for an ill-chosen phrase and hope that’s the end of it is to misunderstand the reasons why the OU academic community is so frustrated by his comments,” the academic said. “It feels to many like only now can we see the extent of the profound misapprehension at the top of the organisation regarding how the OU’s reputation for teaching quality has been built.”

sophie.inge@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (7)

"Although the comments were welcomed in the student forum" The implication that academic staff do not teach was not in any sense welcomed in the student forum. OU Students are very appreciative and aware of the wonderful teaching texts their university produces, and of the academics who create them. Some of the other ideas - for example, giving more opportunity for students to interact directly with academics - were welcomed.
I personally have learnt a huge amount from my PhD supervisors who have taught me a great deal from academic writing skills to research paradigms etc. As a full-time employee and distance learner accessing my supervisors as and when I've needed to, as an independent PhD student has been invaluable. Not all of us need or want a return to residential tutoring. That's an outdated and elitist model of education that frankly is not fit for for a 21st century technologically advanced society.
Overall I had a fantastic experience studying with the OU as an undergraduate, but I'd like to make one point. It took me many years to get my degree and it's a qualification that I'm extremely proud of. From what I've sensed over the years, OU tutors / department staff are very proactive with driving teaching materials and methods forwards. However, as a consumer I feel that the approach is getting far too bogged down with a misguided view of the 'importance' of digital delivery, somehow thinking moving with the fashion of the times is better route to take. I feel it's lazy. My last two modules were very bland, and if I experienced the same dryness for previous modules, I'd have taken my money elsewhere. Online has benefits, but it should only be used to enhance good teaching as far as I'm concerned. The most inspiring course I ever had the pleasure of studying had a wonderful residential school. Let's hope that future generations of students don't become anxious morlocks who daren't move from behind a computer screen!
As a previous employee of the OU I feel I can comment on Peter Horrocks views. The OU academics do not reach. They get their feedback second hand, they do not interfac3 in the same way as ‘real academics’ do. There is a lack of touch with reality which pervades throughout the institution, both academic and in the Business Development Unit. Peter Horrocks is employing a sustainable strategy for the University. It has to change to be part of the modern world
The notion that the OU needs reinventing seems very, very odd to me as a graduate of this great university! The OU has been at the bleeding edge of innovation in how it delivers the finest education I have received! I’m a graduate of Oxford, Imperial and LSE so can talk with authority about this. When I was at the BBC where Horrocks comes from, they had this notion of innovation disruption which normally turned into cultural vandalism!
In my 14 years as an OU academic there were associate lecturers involved in every course team with which I was involved and their 'coal face' input was critical to the refinement of materials during the presentation of modules. The face-to-face element of OU delivery has been under pressure on cost grounds for years so its ironic that a non-academic feels entitled to criticise the very people who fought to retain that essential direct engagement with students.
As a current OU central academic and one who was greatly offended by Horrocks' remarks, my greatest fear is that he will stay and ruin the institution. I am sure his intentions are good, but it has become absolutely evident that he does not understand what a UNIVERSITY is, much less the difference between bite-size gobbets of information and teaching students knowledge. What the OU does best - better than the 4 'traditional' universities that I have worked for - is teach students HOW TO THINK CRITICALLY. Horrocks' plans and his obsession with digital delivery will put that in jeopardy.

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