Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In praise of Open University people

The Open University (OU) is a phenomenal institution with fundamentally decent ethos and values which it has been a privilege for me to be able to tell people I work for, for the past 20 years or so.  We are, however, facing some serious challenges.

The latest plan to deal with those challenges is to close seven front-line regional operations centres. The OU centres marked for closure are London, Oxford, Bristol, Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds and Newcastle.

Understanding the OU deeply takes a long time. It is full of incredible people who care deeply about our students and who have repeatedly shown they will go to the ends of the earth for this place, even to the point of putting their own health and welbeing at risk. Staff in the East Grinstead regional office which was shut down by the University at the end of November 2014, worked evenings and weekends, even in the knowledge they would be unemployed by Christmas, to ensure the students were settled with experienced, well qualified-tutors for our courses starting last autumn. In the thick of all the complexity and accommodation of massive structural changes of the past few years, though, it's worth noting that fundamentally the OU is simply about putting people in touch with people, people who care.

Historically the OU turned a discredited education method - correspondence courses - into hugely effective supported open learning at a distance which, for over 40 years, has outstripped the personal support provided by most of the conventional university sector by a street. Through a combination of energy, novelty, creativity, mutual support, organisation, sense, care, goodwill, a following wind and the right people, we, by accident as much as by design, got a lot of the key structural things right in the early days -
  1. The course production module - multidisciplinary concentrated teams producing intensely peer reviewed, tailored, self-contained, high quality self-study print, audio, video,multimedia and networked course material 
  2. The central administrative infrastructure needed to support production and operation at scale, on everything from exams to summer schools and associated  logistics 
  3. The regional administrative infrastructure - essentially front end regional offices and operations - that put the OU in the local community and real people who cared in touch with the people who were our students; names and faces that students got to know and trust throughout their period of study.
  4. Above everything else, the foundation stone that the place is built on is the deep level of care and the goodwill of the staff and students.
Unparalleled care, dedication to duty and goodwill are at the heart of all public services from education to policing, the health services and beyond. Care, dedication to duty and goodwill, unfortunately are also things that cannot be easily measured or counted. Things that politicians and bureaucrats are not easily held accountable for and things in recent generations, therefore, that have been sadly neglected and badly damaged, across the entire public sector. Simplistic targets, process, efficiency and cost cutting are the order of the day.  

Vice-chancellors, like all senior officers in the public sector, have been under intolerable pressure to rationalise and provide more for less.  The OU’s vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks is quoted by the Times Higher Education Supplement as saying that the regional centre closures were aimed at providing students with the “best possible experience”.
“With developments in technology changing how we work, the student’s experience of the OU has not been limited by geography for some time. 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.”
At its heart, education is a gift economy and the OU, for most of its life, has been the high water benchmark service for that economy, with care and goodwill at the core of its DNA.

I had been trying to hold onto the hope that when the dust settles on all the upheaval, we at the OU and the higher education sector in the round would emerge heavily bruised but re-trenched and largely intact. I'm now seriously concerned that we are evolving towards a future where students are numbers to be processed rather than people we care about and enable to develop their inherent talents and potential. 

Education cannot be done by treating people as numbers and it cannot be packaged as standardised widgets and sold via automated processes. Putting people in touch with people is the key. 

When universities feel they are forced to put the futures of the staff who care at risk - in this case incredibly special, unbelievably caring, dedicated OU people, with impossibly high standards, who demand nothing but the best of themselves and our institution in support of our students - then we put the futures of our students, our universities and our education system as a whole at risk.