Open University to review reform programme after v-c’s exit

Acting vice-chancellor promises to ‘listen’ to staff concerns after academic body agrees to shelve no-confidence vote until June

April 20, 2018
mary kellett
Open communications: Mary Kellett, the university’s interim vice-chancellor, wants to introduce ‘more effective listening’

The Open University is to pause its controversial restructuring programme for two months after its senate agreed to defer a vote of no confidence in the proposed reforms.

In a message to staff, Mary Kellett, the university’s interim vice-chancellor, said that the institution’s leadership team had decided to undertake a “critical review” of its “Transformation programme” over the next two months.

It follows the resignation of the OU’s vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, on 13 April after weeks of mounting pressure over cuts to jobs and courses under the reform plan to save £100 million, as well as his leaked comments that academics at the distance-learning institution “don’t teach”.

Mr Horrocks left the Milton Keynes-based institution days after he apparently failed to win backing at a council meeting, although he insisted in his resignation statement that significant areas of his plans would still go ahead.

However, Professor Kellett, his interim successor, who has been serving as executive dean of the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies, told OU staff that the suspension of the transformation programme would allow management and academics to “take stock of where and why we disagree” on the reform plan.

“We need to listen and to stop if it is the right thing to do,” she said, adding that she was “confident you will see evidence of greater and more effective listening”.

However, Professor Kellett said that she wanted to drop immediately some of the more contentious parts of the plan, such as the “potential changes to faculty structures” and “keep the status quo”.

The review, which follows a senate meeting on 18 April, would address the “more controversial proposals covering our approach to research and teaching”, said Professor Kellett, who said the “senate agreed to defer its vote of no confidence in the programme until the next meeting in June, where I will share a progress report on the review”.

However, while her executive team would “look again at the curriculum portfolio review”, she said that it was “essential that we make some significant savings from this process if we are to tackle our growing operating deficit”.

She added that, at the senate meeting, she “shared my deep concerns that people are frightened to speak out, to express an opinion”.

“I have heard it loud and clear from non-academic members of staff in recent weeks,” she said of these concerns, adding that “it is appalling for any university, but particularly for the Open University”.

Professor Kellett said that she wanted to “instil a period of calm, of healing and of rebuilding trust”.

“I come with no hidden agendas. I simply want to do the best I can for our students, for this university and for our staff, and to steer us into safe waters, out of jeopardy, primed for the challenges ahead,” said Professor Kellett.

Richard Gillingwater, the OU’s pro-chancellor, indicated that cuts were still on cards, stating that the “council stands by our overall strategy and the key objectives enshrined in it”.

“We must acknowledge that currently, it costs more to run our university than the income our students provide us with – hence the widening operating deficit, which will cripple us if we do not get our house in order,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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