“Quite frankly, I think we should all take our hats off to Peter Horrocks, the vice-chancellor of The Open University.”
That was the strongly supportive statement issued by our own vice-chancellor as Mr Horrocks faced severe and sustained criticism from serving lecturers and present and past students from his institution.
In an exclusive interview with Keith Ponting (30), our vice-chancellor went on to claim that Mr Horrocks deserved to be congratulated for spotting an essential feature of the university that he had been heading for the past three years.
“Unlike some vice-chancellors one could name, he decided one day to step outside the narrow confines of his well-accoutred office and have a good look around. And when he did, he couldn’t help but notice that although he kept bumping into people with names such as ‘lecturer’ and ‘senior lecturer’ and ‘professor’, no matter how hard he looked, he never seemed to come across any lecture halls or seminar rooms. But there was more. No matter how far he travelled in the various buildings that made up his domain, he never encountered any groups of students – indeed, any students at all. And that was when the penny dropped, the moment that he realised not only what was wrong with the Open University but how it could be put right: ‘The people who work here should be bloody well teaching…It’s ridiculous that they’re spoken about as teaching when they’re writing. That’s not teaching.’ What a breakthrough!”
But, suggested Ponting, surely these comments suggested that the vice-chancellor had totally failed to recognise the nature of his own institution. After all, wasn’t the whole model of the Open University dependent on the idea that members of staff were recruited because of their expertise in creating high-quality distance-learning materials, materials that had become universally recognised as outstanding? Wasn’t blaming Open University staff for failing to engage in face-to-face teaching the categorical equivalent of excoriating a turnip for not being a pomegranate?
“Not at all,” insisted our vice-chancellor. “Not at all. And, in fact, this is precisely the point. As soon as the staff at the Open University heard Mr Horrocks’ views, they went out of their way to fill him in about the concept of distance learning on which his institution was based. And once he’d been given that vital information, he immediately apologised for his ‘careless language’ and freely and frankly admitted that the academic writing carried out by his staff created the ‘outstanding learning materials’ that constituted the ‘backbone of our distance learning model, informed by scholarly pedagogy, that supports our students’.”
But, wondered Ponting, did such an apology fully compensate for the vice-chancellor’s initial failure to recognise how members of his staff passed their working days?
Our vice-chancellor had no doubts. “I think you’re being quite unrealistically optimistic. It’s never an easy matter to grasp the essential nature of a complex institution. I mean, consider my own case. I must have spent the best part of two months looking at what was going on in all these buildings before I recognised that I was not principal of a citadel of learning but managing director of a medium-sized biscuit factory.”