The vice-chancellor of The Open University has resigned, days after a council meeting where he apparently failed to win backing and little over a week since union members called for him to go.
Peter Horrocks said on 13 April that he would step down from the Milton Keynes-based institution with immediate effect, following weeks of mounting pressure over cuts to jobs and courses, and leaked comments about academics’ teaching duties.
Members of the OU branch of the University and College Union passed a no-confidence motion in the vice-chancellor on 5 April, claiming that Mr Horrocks’ position had become “untenable” after he claimed that the institution’s distance-learning model had allowed academics “to get away with not being teachers for decades”.
The university’s governing council held an emergency meeting to discuss the growing unrest on 9 April, after which Richard Gillingwater, the panel’s chair, sent a message to staff that did not endorse Mr Horrocks, who joined the OU in 2015.
In a statement, Mr Horrocks said that executive deans and council members elected by the university’s senate had agreed to back key principles of his plans to reform the OU, including a curriculum review.
“With those two components of [the] Students First [transformation programme] approved by academic governance, the university will have reached an important milestone,” Mr Horrocks said. “So the time has come when I am ready to move on, having achieved my primary goals at the OU.”
Lydia Richards, the UCU regional official, said that “staff made it quite clear that the vice-chancellor had to go and we are pleased he has finally got that message”.
“The Open University is a fantastic institution and Horrocks’ replacement must defend the unique role it plays in our education system and the work of its staff,” she said.
“The university leadership team should now scrap the damaging plans to cut jobs and courses, and work with us to develop a more positive strategy for the future of the institution.”
The OU said that Mary Kellett, currently interim executive dean of the Faculty of Business and Law, had been appointed acting vice-chancellor.
She said that she wanted to “reach out” to staff “to quell any anxieties you might be having about next steps”.
“There is now a need to pause and reflect, to regroup and above all to learn from all the messages you have been giving us in recent weeks,” Professor Kellett said. She added: “I am hopeful that we can instil a period of calm, of healing and of rebuilding trust.”
Mr Horrocks, a former director of the BBC World Service, had tried to reshape the OU's curricula, utilise new digital tools in teaching, and to transform the university into a major provider of apprenticeship training.
However, he had to contend with a nationwide collapse in part-time study, driven by the government's 2012 funding reforms, which was hard to turn around, and mounting opposition from staff who feared that Mr Horrocks' changes could turn the OU into little more than an online content provider and could dilute its research expertise.
Mr Gillingwater, the OU’s pro-chancellor, said that Mr Horrocks “made an enormous contribution to securing the future of The Open University during his three years at the helm”.
“Peter has recaptured the pioneering spirit of the OU, challenged norms and pushed us to put innovation at the heart of our preparations for the future,” Mr Gillingwater said. “He departs with our sincere thanks and warm wishes for the future.”