The vice-chancellor of The Open University has apologised after claiming that the institution’s distance learning model had allowed academics “to get away with not being teachers for decades”.
Responding to a question during a filmed discussion with OU students, Peter Horrocks claimed that scholars at the institution’s Milton Keynes headquarters typically “aren’t responsible” for delivering tuition based around teaching materials that they had developed.
Arguing that the best associate lecturers based around the country who offer tutorial support should be able to make improvements to teaching materials that students were struggling with, Mr Horrocks added: “The people who work here [in Milton Keynes] should be bloody well teaching, they should be teaching directly.
“It’s ridiculous that they’re spoken about as teaching when they are writing, that's not teaching. And they used to teach in residential [universities] and this university has allowed central academics to get away with not being teachers for decades.”
Although the comments were welcomed in the student forum, they have provoked a strong backlash from OU staff.
Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at the university, branded the remarks “an attack on OU staff and the institution itself”.
“For decades the OU fought to get distance [education] recognised as high-quality and as good (if not better than) [face-to-face] teaching. To have this dismissed so readily by our own [vice-chancellor] seems like a betrayal,” he said on Twitter. “Creating distance [education] materials is not just writing, any more than [face-to-face] teaching is just talking. It is informed by pedagogic research, and experience in learning.”
Mark Brandon, reader in polar oceanography, added: “When staff hear our vice-chancellor saying that what we do isn’t teaching, it doesn’t make sense. At the most trivial level, we have stacks of national and international awards saying it is and we are good at it.
“At a higher level, people are legitimately asking that after three years in post, ‘Does he understand what we do?’ I can’t believe he doesn’t; he does have an executive with decades of OU experience.”
The row has erupted as the OU launches a voluntary redundancy programme as part of a restructuring project that aims to save £100 million from the institution’s £420 million annual budget.
In a message to staff, Mr Horrocks apologised for his “careless language”.
“Your academic writing creates our outstanding learning materials and they are the backbone of our distance learning model, informed by scholarly pedagogy, that supports our students,” he wrote. “I know that beyond your renowned writing are a wide range of other high-quality teaching and support activities that contribute to our students’ learning.
“My comments were attempting to explain to students that I believe that we can build consistently on the many innovative ways in which central academics are already interacting directly with large numbers of students. I want us to rekindle and extend the benefits of academic colleagues having a more direct relationship with students, something pioneered in the early days of the university through residential schools and tutoring.”
Mr Horrocks added that he had “overstepped” the mark and that his comments “did not show appropriate respect”.
One academic, who did not wish to be named, said that Mr Horrocks’ apology had failed to allay academics’ concerns.
“To apologise for an ill-chosen phrase and hope that’s the end of it is to misunderstand the reasons why the OU academic community is so frustrated by his comments,” the academic said. “It feels to many like only now can we see the extent of the profound misapprehension at the top of the organisation regarding how the OU’s reputation for teaching quality has been built.”