I’ve had a draft of this post kicking around for a while now, but after today’s news that Open University Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks has resigned, it seems now is the time to publish it. I won’t go into specific suggestions about policy or strategy (but, hey, I have lots of those!) because that is too internally focused and not of interest to most people outside the OU. Instead I want to focus on more cultural, generic issues which, while brought to a very public head at the OU, are pertinent to many in higher ed I believe. I’m going to couch these in terms of Love, Faith, Hope and Charity. If the OU senior management can make steps to addressing these more fundamental (dare I say, emotional) issues, then the OU will return to be a functioning, forward looking institution at the heart of the UK higher education system. But, if it’s permissible, I do offer a general recommendation for each (all this for considerably less than £2.5 million).
First of all, many people will interpret his resignation as confirmation of their own beliefs. It’s not my intention to tell anyone what the ‘correct’ interpretation is, but for me, I feel it would be a mistake to argue that it means change is not needed, and we shouldn’t do more online provision. We are not returning to bearded men wearing kipper ties on BBC2 at 3am anytime soon. But while I expect there will be a big inquisition now as to which parts of the transformation project continue, here is my take on the more high level issues that will create the culture for the OU to realise that.
Love – one positive outcome of the recent public crisis has been the outpouring of support for the OU from students, staff and the wider public. This in itself represents an opportunity. But I want specifically to focus on the devotion staff feel to the organisation. In our staff survey, affiliation with the mission of the OU and its role is always very high. It is trust in senior management that has plummeted in these surveys to an all time low. Working at the OU over recent months has felt like being trapped inside an episode of W1A directed by Franz Kafka. We have had repeated reorganisations, strategic directives, consultancies and reallocation of priorities. No-one knows what they are doing anymore or where it is heading. It has led to complete paralysis. Ironically, the press has occasionally framed this as a pro vs anti-change struggle, but for many the frustration is more that the obsession with managerialism has led to no change.
To put this in terms that finance managers might appreciate – the devotion of staff to the organisation is a valuable resource. It is literally worth millions to the OU in terms of extra labour, free publicity, innovative ideas. This resource has largely been squandered on initiatives that have produced no discernible benefit. You don’t get to put Students First by putting Staff Last.
Recommendation: The priority for a new regime is to win back that love and trust, and to treat it like the precious resource it is.
Faith – I have moaned before how higher education seems to hate itself. Too often the OU has been bedazzled by the opinions and views of those outside higher ed. We spent millions on consultants who knew little about higher education and less about the OU to tell us how to be a better Open University. Not only is this wasteful, but the message it sends is that we don’t trust our own staff to know what is required. Whilst there are some OU staff who will always resist change, most are keen to embrace it and understand the financial situation that the introduction of fees have created. In the second of our major strategic directives 13 Big Shifts were identified (needless to say, everyone immediately started referring to them as the Big Shits. That no-one in senior management could have predicted this was telling in itself). The first of these talked about focusing on the “Business to Student (B2C)” market. Firstly, what did they think we had been doing all this time? Secondly, this reveals a lack of understanding of higher education. No-one enters academia because they want to focus on a “B2C market”. This was the opening line – not students, education, or mission. Compare this with the opening of the Athabasca University review (conducted by a third party academic):
The university has significant problems,… Change is necessary, in my view, but the path forward that I envisage builds on the university’s history and original mandate. The AU community of scholars, students, staff members and community stakeholders is passionate about their institution and its role in Alberta society. There is considerable appetite for constructive change.
This recognises the need for change, builds on the university’s history, offers hope and speaks in a language all staff can buy into. I bet it cost a lot less too. Senior management need to trust their staff and to demonstrate that trust for any large scale change to occur.
Recommendation: Engage with staff and students on clear, practical changes and communicate in language that is appropriate for a university.
Hope – The introduction of fees has hit part time students hard. It has caused a dramatic drop in OU registrations, no organisation can accommodate that drop in income and maintain business as usual. This has created the climate for the much vaunted change. The financial situation was not as dire as depicted however. The amount the OU was below the break even line was pretty near to what we were investing in FutureLearn. If you took that out then the narrative would be less about the need for complete overhaul, and more about introducing some strategic, and deliverable projects. Staff are willing to sign up for change when presented with evidence, but there needs to be a definite end point to it, and some early results. Simply rearranging the words “digital”, “disruption”, “revolution” and “cloud” in various sentences doesn’t offer that. You can only go to the “major change” well so many times, so like staff devotion, be sure when you want to do it, and have clear, manageable deliverables.
Recommendation: Implement no more than three major practical projects simultaneously, all with clearly defined goals, and realisable within 1 year.
Charity – The OU is a registered charity but at times it seems to really want to be an edtech business, to be the Facebook of learning. We have poured millions into FutureLearn, which increasingly looks like a vanity project, while closing regional centres. As mentioned previously, we prioritise managerial expertise in other sectors over higher education knowledge. We need to stop viewing (or listening to people who view) Higher Education as a problem that needs to be fixed, as if it is the same as increasing the sale of baked beans. Instead of trying to be something it’s not, the OU should get back to being the wonderful thing it is. This is best done by letting staff get on with teaching, and the managerialism being as much in the background as possible, instead of being foregrounded in every single functioning unit.
Recommendation: Focus on improving core university functions in an incremental manner.
I don’t know what the future of the OU holds, or if I’ll have a part in it. But I do think the current crisis has given us a renewed focus on retaining our position and mission in UK and global higher education. With some understanding management it can easily assure it’s next 50 years, and be in a good place from this current situation.