UNDER THE RADAR, a quiet resistance movement is sweeping through a corner of Milton Keynes. There has been some media coverage of the Open University’s (OU) difficulties but the key issues have been largely unreported. Perhaps it is time to correct that imbalance.
The OU is one of the great Labour achievements. The ‘university of the air’, a term coined by a Labour Party study group in 1963, would, in Harold Wilson’s words, provide people who “have not been able to take advantage of higher education”, access to world-class university study. It was a bold vision, resisted by the Tories and establishment, but championed by the left, not least by Jennie Lee, who insisted the university would be an institution with “no concessions”.
Not compromising meant refusing the binary of teaching versus research and walking a tricky line between the two. The ‘OU way’ means being leaders in curriculum design, ensuring our students have the most fulfilling experience, guided by academics who, as well as being fantastic teachers, are also leading authorities in their subjects. All of this within a truly open framework, within which any student can come and be supported towards a higher education qualification. For many staff here, this mission is personal, as well as political. Many of us, me included, wouldn’t be academics without the opportunities the OU has given us.
Recently, the OU has tried to survive in an environment that Stuart Hall, one of our most celebrated academics, termed the “great moving right show”, an atomising of society, manifested in higher education as increasing commercialisation. One of the great tragedies of the trebling of tuition fees under the coalition government was its effect on more mature, distance learners. Although we set our fees at a significantly lower level than elsewhere, we lost a third of our students, who tend to be older, have family responsibilities and are more averse to accumulating debt. One of the great British institutions of social democracy and social mobility was now under threat.
Enter new vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, formerly a BBC journalist and manager. For his first two years, staff struggled to understand the meaning of the jargon and tried to engage with what felt like a confused and unspecified agenda for change. Individual issues started to stack up - £2.5m spent on external consultants but widespread confusion about vision and operational challenges and a lack of substantive and meaningful dialogue with committed and knowledgeable staff.
In 2018, events came to a head. The primary issue was one of trust and competence in the vice-chancellor to deliver change, following a series of public missteps. Hence the relative silence within Labour concerning the OU - this was an internal matter. Yet below the surface was a simmering dissatisfaction with the ideological drift of the organisation. In an interview in the Guardian in January, Horrocks argued for leaving behind the university’s roots in social democratic traditions of emancipation through education to embrace ‘the market’ and ‘employability’. This embrace of the neo-liberal agenda in higher education sat uncomfortably with many staff and students.
Then there was the plan to cut £100m from our annual budget of £420m. Admittedly much of this would be reinvested, but this nevertheless indicated the likelihood of a big shift in organisational purpose. The question we were asking was: why shouldn’t we have a fully open university in the UK where students can enrich their lives through education, whatever their life circumstances?
A group of staff had started to develop new connections during the pensions strike and began to wonder if the previously unthinkable - taking on and defeating the university’s leadership and its agenda - might be possible after all. What followed was a fantastic example of collective action, of leadership from the guts of the organisation. Many members of staff put their careers on the line to express their views publicly. Students joined in. The outcome was unprecedented: a change in university leadership. More importantly, we now have some space to do some serious thinking about how the OU can remain viable. We know we need to find savings and change. But we now feel that we can shape that change in positive, progressive ways. The over two million students who have passed through the OU and the 170,000 currently enrolled know it is a special place.
The Tories - and Milton Keynes’ two Tory MPs - have let down potential OU students with their reforms. Meanwhile Angela Rayner’s forthcoming consultation on Labour’s proposed national education service should embrace the possibilities presented to us by the situation at the OU. Although other universities now offer distance learning, there is a strong case to be made for the OU’s unique expertise, academic excellence and strong social mission.
Senior Lecturer in People Management and Organisation and UCU member