Union members at The Open University are to be balloted for strike action over the planned closure of seven regional centres, which would result in 500 staff facing a choice of relocating or leaving.
The University and College Union announced the vote after the institution’s senate passed a motion calling for the closures to be cancelled, and as a petition opposing them passed 4,600 signatures.
Under the plans, the OU would 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, although it will consider whether a smaller and “more appropriately located” presence should be retained in the capital.
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 are also unaffected.
But the UCU has questioned how realistic it will be for staff to relocate, with those who choose not to move having to take voluntary severance or early retirement. Employees in the Gateshead office, for example, would have a five-hour round trip of 250 miles if they were to get to their nearest remaining centre, in Edinburgh.
Pauline Collins, the UCU branch president at the OU, said that the union had “little alternative now but to ballot for strike action”.
“Axing over 500 staff across seven centres would be catastrophic to The Open University’s ability to provide the kind of support that students need,” she said. “We hope the university will now see sense and work with us to find a better solution for staff, students and the future of The Open University.”
At the senate meeting, members voted by 41 votes to 31 in favour of a motion which describes the closures as “operationally and reputationally very high risk” and warns that the proposal “fails adequately to support the academic mission of the university”. The motion calls on the university to explore other options.
Peter Horrocks, vice-chancellor of the OU, said: “The OU’s mission has always been about embracing innovation and providing our students with the best possible experience.
“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.”
A final decision on the proposals will be made by the OU’s council next month.