Academics fear Continental drift as support shifts to UK for OU students

Maintaining lecturers in Europe 'expensive and inefficient', minutes say. Simon Baker reports

January 26, 2012

Credit: Alamy
The way ahead? Students struggle to see how the OU can make good its promise that face-to-face tutorials will continue

More than 100 academics working for The Open University in Europe could lose their jobs in a planned shake-up of the way the institution operates there.

Times Higher Education understands that the distance-learning specialist is proposing to stop employing associate lecturers and other staff on the Continent who support its students through their courses.

Instead, students based in mainland Europe will receive more help from staff based in the UK, although the institution insists that this will still include face-to-face tutorials and residential schools "where appropriate".

The plans - which affect at least 100 associate lecturers in nine countries and seven academic-related staff members in six countries - are due to be voted on by the institution's council at a board meeting on 28 February.

Minutes from a July 2011 meeting of the governing body show the university's vice-chancellor Martin Bean confirming that the institution was planning to "decommit from face-to-face tuition using (associate lecturers) based in Europe".

His reply followed a question about the institution's European strategy, which had referred to "substantial online delivery".

The issue arose again at the board's meeting in November when Miles Hedges, the institution's finance director, said that employing associate lecturers in Europe was "difficult" because of the variation in employment laws across the Continent.

There are currently about 9,000 students studying OU courses in English in mainland Europe, according to the institution's website. As well as support from a tutor, some have access to online forums and face-to-face tutorials depending on their location.

Residential schools are also offered outside the UK.

According to a staff briefing on the proposed changes, "the pattern of distribution of OU students across Continental Europe makes it difficult to operate the tutor/student allocation process efficiently, with the result that many associate have tutor groups where few, if any, students are based in their own country".

It adds: "We are also required to operate 12 different payroll systems, deal with 12 different legal and fiscal systems...This means that it is significantly more expensive to employ an associate lecturer in Continental Europe than in the UK, compounded by the generally high social security costs and fluctuating exchange rate."

Uninterrupted service

A spokeswoman for the university said that although the location of those delivering support to its students in Europe may change, students "would see no difference to the service they receive and no reduction in the support or qualifications available".

She added that there would still be face-to-face tutorials "where appropriate", and that tutors for modules already under way would not be changed.

However, the extent of face-to-face tuition in Europe - both now and in the future - appeared to be questioned at July's board meeting by Marianne Cantieri, president of The Open University Students' Association.

Ms Cantieri remarked that there was "virtually no face-to-face contact in Europe and, if tutors were being removed, there would soon be none at all", according to the minutes.

Roger Walters, president of the OU branch of the University and College Union, said the plans were "deeply regrettable".

"It is extremely sad that very many long-standing and highly committed people who have performed an invaluable service for the OU are at risk of losing their jobs," he said. "We believe this is a bad move that could damage the [university's] reputation in Europe."

Erosion of values: a cliché but it's true

An associate lecturer based in mainland Europe responds to The Open University's plans

"It's already such a cliche to moan about the gradual decline of higher education's values as it adopts a more 'businesslike' approach that it might seem superfluous to add yet one more voice to the tired old chorus of complaint.

"Certainly the current direction being taken by the OU is far from unique in this respect. Indeed, it might even be argued that by working for the university in mainland Europe - where students have always been obliged to pay full fees - one is already conniving in a kind of 'expansion of the customer base' that is fully consistent with such a market-oriented culture.

"And yet at the same time, even under such circumstances, many OU staff on the Continent still maintain a certain commitment to some of the idealistic, egalitarian values on which the institution was founded - values such as universal access to learning, which, as we can testify from our everyday work, can be life-transforming.

"It's these values that some of us fear are being eroded by this ongoing cultivation of a more openly commercial mindset.

"The latest cost-saving measures, which will have a massive impact not only on our livelihoods but also the whole quality of student support on the European mainland, are a clear case in point."

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