And thus we arrive at 2018, a pivotal year in OU history. Under the leadership of then VC, Peter Horrocks, the OU was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons – regional centres were closing, staff were striking, the finances were in a bad shape and the people at the top were disconnected from staff and students. It all came to a head in 2018 with the VC finally resigning.
I’m not a brave or particularly militant person, and I’m very loyal to the OU as an institution, so I refrained from joining in much of the criticism publicly. Privately though there were a number of underground resistance groups operating via Twitter DMs, email, newspaper briefings and secret tunnels beneath Walton Hall. Helen Bowes-Catton relates how she was part of such a group on WhatsApp – I wasn’t in that group but I was part of many similar ones.
I wasn’t heavily involved in the disastrous Students First project (which presumably was in contrast to our famous hitherto Students Last philosophy) but I used to meet so many colleagues who were, and they were good people, exhausted, frustrated and just broken by it all. Not that they were resistant to change but the constantly shifting (sometimes from one day to the next) priorities and lack of understanding of how a university operates made it impossible to realise. Many of these people left during this period or soon after.
My loyalty finally cracked when the VC famously declared that OU academics weren’t doing teaching, and they should be ‘bloody well teaching’. This was a betrayal of the whole history of the OU, and marked the final straw for Horrocks. My Twitter rant at the time went semi-viral. I received a lot of private messages from people who were relating how broken they felt, sitting at their desks crying with a sense of loss and deprofessionalisation.
I blogged about what I thought were the lessons at the time, and I’d stand by these still. Thankfully the OU has definitely turned the corner now, and Tim Blackman, the current VC, understands the institution, values staff and can manage the change we need while still keeping people on board. I am hugely grateful for the change in culture that has occurred. I guess the big lesson from all this was that those of us who survived it emerged with a greater sense of appreciation of our colleagues and connection with the OU itself.
Covid-19 bit: The pandemic is a crisis that has been forced upon all of higher education, and as such many institutions will be trying to implement significant change and requiring more of their staff, which may not be dissimilar to the OU situation in 2018. The lesson from the OU experience is that staff understand the need for change and are not resistant to it, but it is necessary to respect them and bring them with you. As soon as you get in expensive consultants who have no higher education experience to tell them what they’ve been doing wrong all this time, using W1A pseudo-language then start preparing for retirement.