Open University v-c Peter Horrocks announces resignation

Vice-chancellor stands down after union members passed no confidence vote

April 13, 2018
Peter Horrocks, vice-chancellor, The Open University

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.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (5)

The Deans have betrayed their academics, who gave a clear signal that asking Horrocks to resign meant a lack of support not just for him but for his 'students first' transformation programme. Clearly the Deans have been bought off by Council (i.e. we'll agree to get rid of Horrocks to pacify the academics as long as you continue to show support for the transformation programme). Or the Deans always gave their support for Horrocks's programme at VCE (but couldn't quite bring themselves to tell the academics). Either way, until the academics make their own leaders accountable to their faculty, there is little point in any further protest. They should be asking tough questions of the Deans about their own views and exactly what Deans are bringing to VCE, given that at Senate next week (according to Gillingwater) the Deans will be supporting the students first transformation programme, a massive package of cuts with no strategy attached.
Clearly a silly appointment and coming on the back of the disastrous tenure of Mr Bean, this once great institution has gone to the dogs. The clear message is : font appoint a charlatan non-academic to run a University.
A VC who has published research, worked in a university, and builds consensus while articulating a clear USP and respect for employees would be a productive way forward beyond just 'students 1st' and 'transformation' rhetoric. Some healing is clearly needed.
Agreed with comment 3! The most successful of previous VCs were people who had relevant experience - and who on earth would appoint someone who doesn't have this absolutely basic requirement as an outstanding teacher and researcher in his or her field? The criticism of colleagues was absolutely unforgivable and went totally against the ethos of the institution. Much can be said about the regime that was allowed to take disastrous proposals as far as it has and much re-building is now required.
To the last comment: when you say 'allowed', that is the problem. Allowed by whom? OU Exec Deans are on VCE. It appears they supported the transformation programme and will support it next week at Senate. That was the price of Horrocks going. OU now in 6th year of drift since fee loans , plunging in nss ratings and with many straightforward changes needed to improve t&l for students that never happened. Academics and their leaders have stood by letting this happen til the last month. They need to take a hard look at themselves.

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