As a journalist who has spent more than three decades working for the BBC, most recently as director of the World Service, Peter Horrocks’ route to becoming a vice-chancellor was anything but typical.
However, looking back on his first year in charge at the Open University, Mr Horrocks said that academia, and the distance learning institution in particular, had proved to be a “home from home” in many ways.
This doesn’t just reflect the historic relationship between the two institutions, which stretches back to the broadcasting of OU content on the BBC and continues to this day; Mr Horrocks said that it also indicated how both were “hugely respected” national institutions with a strong sense of mission and hugely committed workforces.
“There are similarities between the creative independence that BBC people have and the academic autonomy that academics have,” Mr Horrocks told Times Higher Education. “Having loved working with argumentative, creative teams in the media, I love working with argumentative and creative teams in the university.”
Mr Horrocks is the first to admit, however, that being a leader in such environments can be difficult. Within weeks of taking charge of the World Service, he had to contend with a 20 per cent cut in his department’s funding from the Foreign Office, a situation that has parallels with how higher tuition fees and government restrictions on student finance for those already with a higher education qualification have contributed to the OU losing a third of its students in the space of six years.
And, just as Mr Horrocks faced criticism at the BBC for making deep cuts to reporting staff and closing a string of foreign language services, he spent much of his first year at the OU dealing with strike action by members of the University and College Union over his plan to shut seven of the institution’s regional centres.
These parallels are not lost on Mr Horrocks. “There are challenges in terms of how you get people who are so believing in their organisation to embrace change because sometimes they can feel as if adapting the organisation might be about undermining what it stands for,” he said. “The trick to it is to absolutely respect the historic values of the organisation, but then reinterpret them.”
This process of reinterpretation is well under way, and stretches far beyond the closure of the regional centres. The university is investing heavily in tools that will allow academics to create new courses swiftly and respond to market demand, and is pumping more cash into FutureLearn, the OU’s platform for massive open online courses.
Earlier this year, the OU launched its first Moocs that offer academic credits towards its degrees. And, most recently, the OU announced that it would seek to become a major provider of degree apprenticeships, in what Mr Horrocks said could amount to a “significant reorientation” for the Milton Keynes-based institution.
Few would deny that change is needed. The OU ran up a deficit of £7.2 million in 2014-15, on the back of a £16.9 million shortfall the year before, while the development of Moocs by universities around the world means that the OU has, in many ways, lost its unique selling point.
Mr Horrocks is bullish about the OU’s prospects. He is “confident” that the 2015-16 accounts will show a return to surplus and says that many of the downward trends in part-time study are “starting to level off”. He highlights that, while the size of the market for part-time study has shrunk dramatically in recent years, the OU has actually increased its share of what remains.
But he is clear that the government must play its part too, by tackling the national decline in part-time learning. Top of Mr Horrocks’ policy wish list are further elimination of the restrictions on student finance for learners who already have a higher education qualification, and the creation of personalised learning accounts that would allow students to access loan funding for individual modules and courses, not just full degrees.
He takes heart from the emphasis put on social mobility by Theresa May in her first speech as prime minister, arguing that the OU’s distance learning model and commitment to admitting students regardless of their academic background means that it is best placed to offer higher education opportunities to those who miss out when they are 18.
But it remains to be seen whether the new government will move away from what Mr Horrocks regards as an excessive focus on full-time study that “misses out” those who may not have had a chance to study at 18 or people who may need to reskill.
“The time has come to turn around the decline in part-time study,” Mr Horrocks said. “The decline in part-time study is not because people don’t want to learn: they know they have got longer working lifetimes and employers are desperate for the skills that are required.
“[There has been] excessive focus on solving the sustainability of higher education for 18-year-olds, which has in my view largely been achieved, [so] the big remaining problem is the decline of part-time [study]. I’m hopeful – I can’t yet be confident – that the new government will grasp that nettle and really set about solving the problem of part-time [decline], not for the sake of the OU, but because it can make a real difference to economic prosperity and social justice.”
If the government can play its part, Mr Horrocks said that the OU will do its bit, too. The institution is prepared to validate qualifications for some of the new providers the government hopes will enter the sector, and Mr Horrocks is challenging OU staff to lead further innovations in online and distance education in the run-up to the institution’s 50th birthday, in 2019.
Here, again, Mr Horrocks sees parallels with his personal experience. “People can start to get slightly set in their ways when they get to 50, or they can decide to propel themselves forward,” he said. “I wasn’t that many years older than 50 when I decided to propel myself forward from my old career to a new one.
“I’m very aware that deliberately shaking oneself up, giving oneself new experiences and testing oneself is a great thing to do as a student and as a vice-chancellor, and it’s a great thing to do for an institution, to always challenge itself and test itself against the circumstances of the day.”