Disciplinary action taken after public airing of staff survey results

Conference speech fuels OU row over compulsory retirement for lecturers, writes Melanie Newman

August 14, 2008

A regional director of The Open University faces disciplinary action after revealing the negative results of an employee survey to staff.

Gordon Lammie, director for the OU in the East Midlands, is understood to have revealed comments made by staff tutors about the treatment of associate lecturers in the survey during a conference speech on 26 June.

Tutors are responsible for part-time associate lecturers, who form the bulk of the OU's teaching staff. In the past, most associate lecturers who wanted to carry on working past the age of 65 were allowed to do so, but the OU has introduced strict criteria for extensions and few lecturers have met them.

An OU source said survey comments read by Mr Lammie showed that some tutors felt they were being asked to act in a "dishonest" way towards associate lecturers by giving them hope that their contracts would be extended. The comments also suggested that managers' handling of associate lecturers went against the ethos of the OU.

The source said: "There were 15 or 20 comments, all on a similar negative theme about the management of the associate lecturers." Mr Lammie is understood to have expressed disappointment that the university's actions had resulted in a breakdown of trust.

"At the end of the speech he was cheered by the staff tutors," the source said. The source added that Mr Lammie had prefaced his remarks about the survey with a statement that he did not believe he was breaching any confidences as the results were about to be published.

However, the results were not published and Mr Lammie attended a disciplinary hearing last week, accused of breach of confidence. It is understood that the university has also suggested that he gave a distorted impression of the results to the conference.

After the conference, the staff tutors threatened to disengage from the retirement process and refuse to help replace those who had been forcibly retired.

The OU is understood to have agreed to amend the criteria for working extensions as a result. Currently, lecturers can only be kept on if they fulfill a critical business need, work in an area of skill shortage or need to complete time-limited development work.

Many academics have complained that quality of teaching and teaching experience are not taken into account. The university secretary is now understood to have agreed to "enrich" the criteria to take account of teaching quality.

The OU has said it will abolish the compulsory retirement age by 2011, leading academics to question why it is imposing one so strictly now.

An OU spokesman said it was not appropriate to comment on ongoing disciplinary proceedings and that staff retirement age was still under discussion. "Senior staff (have) agreed to consider whether or not the existing criteria to be applied in deciding whether or not there is a business case for extending the intended retirement date of an associate lecturer might require revision," he said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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