The Open University has announced plans to close all but two of its remaining regional centres in England, in a move that leaves about 500 staff facing a choice of relocating or leaving.
The institution, which closed its office in East Grinstead, Sussex, last year, said that it proposes to shut a further seven following a review.
These include the centres in Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds. Sites in Cambridge, Gateshead and Oxford are also earmarked for closure, as is the centre in London, although the OU said that it would consider whether a smaller and “more appropriately located” presence should be retained in the capital.
The restructure would allow student support services to be centralised in regional offices in Manchester and Nottingham, and at the institution’s headquarters in Milton Keynes.
The OU said that it did not expect the proposal to result in compulsory redundancies, but about 500 employees who work in the seven centres face having to relocate, or take voluntary severance or early retirement. This is equivalent to approximately one in nine of the OU’s workforce, excluding tutors.
The university said that the new model would allow it to deliver “quicker response times” and “more proactive support” to students, over longer opening hours.
Since 2014, the regional centres have not provided regional services, but have been responsible for certain curriculum areas. They are not visited by students frequently, a spokesman said.
Peter Horrocks, the OU’s vice-chancellor, said that the changes were aimed at providing students with the “best possible experience”.
“With developments in technology changing how we work, the student’s experience of the OU has not been limited by geography for some time,” he said. “This is a difficult decision and I fully recognise the impact it will have on many of our staff, but we cannot afford to stay still.
“This recommendation, if approved, would allow us to enhance student support in a way that’s simply not possible in our current office network, and offer our students the sort of support they expect and deserve.”
At the time of the East Grinstead closure last year, more than 50 OU employees signed an open letter to The Guardian, warning that the loss of regional centres would mark the end of the university’s “historic mission to be open to people and places everywhere in the UK”.
The OU’s national centres in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh are unaffected by the proposals, and the small sub-office in Dublin is also expected to remain open. The roles of staff who decide not to relocate to one of the remaining offices would be filled, the spokesman added.
A final decision on the proposal will be made by the OU’s council in late November, with February 2017 the earliest date for the new structure to be in place.
The University and College Union said that it could not rule out industrial action over the proposed closures, highlighting that staff in the Gateshead office would have a five-hour round trip of 250 miles if they were to get to their nearest centre, in Edinburgh.
Pauline Collins, the UCU branch president at the OU, said that the university’s regional staff were “at the core” of its educational offer.
“Axing almost 500 staff across seven centres would be catastrophic and decimate The Open University’s ability to provide the kind of local support that students need,” she said. “We are unconvinced by the university’s talk of staff relocating, especially as this will mean hours spent in the car or on the train just trying to get to and from work.”