Open University staff vote to strike over regional centre closures

With 500 jobs at stake, ballot is first of its type in institution’s history

November 5, 2015

Union members at the Open University have voted to strike for the first time in the institution’s history, as the planned closure of seven regional centres leaves 500 staff facing a choice of relocating or leaving.

In a ballot of University and College Union members, 72 per cent of those who voted were in favour of the strike. Eighty-three per cent supported action short of a strike, such as working to contract.

Members will meet next week to decide when to strike and how long for.

The vote was called after the OU announced proposals to shut its regional centres in Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds, as well as in Cambridge, Gateshead and Oxford. The institution has also earmarked its centre in London for closure.

About 500 employees who work in the centres would be given the choice of relocating to the two remaining offices where student support services would be centralised, in Manchester and Nottingham, or to the OU’s headquarters in Milton Keynes. National centres in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh would be unaffected.

But the UCU has questioned how realistic it would be for staff to relocate, with those who choose not to move having to take voluntary severance or early retirement.

Last month, the university’s senate called for the proposals to be dropped, describing them as “very high risk” and as failing to support the academic mission of the institution.

A petition opposing the closures now has more than 6,000 signatures, and 24 MPs have signed an early-day motion opposing the move.

Pauline Collins, the UCU branch president, called on managers to “work with us to deliver changes that will not be so devastating for the staff, students or future of the Open University”.

“The only people who still seem to think that axeing 500 jobs and closing down seven regional Open University centres is a good idea are the senior managers,” she said. “We have been overwhelmed by the support from students, former students and even MPs in our campaign.”

A spokesman said that the OU was “disappointed” by the strike vote.

“We do not believe industrial action will lead to anything positive, either for our staff or students,” the spokesman said. “We recognise this is a difficult time for staff affected, and we want to work positively with unions to look after staff in the best possible way.”

Centralising student support would allow the OU “invest more in student support” and would not result in services being withdrawn, he added.

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