Love, Faith, Hope & Charity – the future of the OU

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.


  • Irwin DeVries

    The greatest of these is love. This is which is why we keep doing what we do. It’s never just a job if it brings you joy. The day I started working in open education more than three decades ago, the hook was set. The romance continues after all those years. From their earliest days, our open institutions and their mandates faced powerful opposition from institutions that should have welcomed them as partners in promoting access to education for all. The people who really get it are our students.

    • mweller

      Too true Irwin – and amongst other things, what has angered me about this, is the abuse of that love. Getting people to work outrageous hours to remedy flawed strategic implementations, use it to drive change agenda, etc

  • pat taylor

    Great post, but I beg to differ on one point. As an OU graduate myself, I find Futurelearn really useful for letting me study short bursts of material on topics I’m interested in, whereas I now don’t have the time or finance to sign up for “real” courses any more.

    • mweller

      Thanks Pat – and thankyou for pushing back on my FL comment. As an open educator, I really value what FL does for learners like you (and me). My point was more mercenary – it doesn’t provide a return on investment for the OU and when you’re laying off staff because of cutbacks then I’m not sure it’s something we can afford any more. In better days, it absolutely fits with the OU mission.

      • Sian Fairley

        Interesting perspective, and one I’d never really considered before. I’m an OU graduate, too, and use FutureLearn all the time. I’ve always taken it for granted that the OU has been innovative in supporting open learning resources, but had never stopped to think about the level of investment needed to keep them going.

  • Sarah Goodacre

    Agree with everything you say thank you… as a former OU employee for 27 years I have felt very sad recently reading news reports as I totally loved and believed in the OU for many of the years I worked there but the last few felt like a slow motion car crash. I hope you are listened to.

  • Ekkehard Thumm

    Thank you Martin. Very well put. Innovation is important, but it’s also important to have a healthy scepticism when people breathlessly tell you about the burning platform the OU supposedly sits on, or the supposed dire state of distance education delivered by means that have already helped a few hundred thousand students achieve their needs.

  • Simon Buckingham Shum

    Thanks Martin. Valuable principles for change in any purpose, passion driven enterprise. Blow the trust, squander the goodwill, and you’ve lost the edge that takes competitors years to grow.

    But I suspect/hope that tank is not yet drained — the OU can still count on its staff to throw themselves into the future if given the right focus.

    My thoughts are with you all as you enter what will hopefully be a life-giving phase.


  • Gilly Salmon

    Me too Martin, who will take responsibility for funding a courageous insightful leader, like those of earlier times?

  • Diana Laurillard

    It’s a wonderful piece, Martin, and you’re right to focus on Love. For so many of us it lasts a lifetime, way beyond the time we spent there. I had the privilege of working at the OU for 20 years and still regard it as the golden years.
    And the love goes much further than the alumni. For the last couple of weeks many of my conversations with friends and colleagues have been about anxieties for its future. There is great national pride in the OU as a unique and hugely significant contributor to our education system.
    But who knows most about how to do what it takes to make It that? The staff. They have to be the source of the ideas for innovation.
    Good luck with the mission, Martin. We’re all with you.

  • Dominic Newbould

    It is good that you are there to inspire and cajole and remember the OU’s noble mission. Sometimes it has been abused, sometimes romanticised, and even then the mission stays open all hours.
    Wishing you well from Hanoi. Hoping and believing that my 33 years as a humble staffer were not wasted.

  • Paul Lefrere

    Yet another great piece, Martin. In various places you note the importance of reducing barriers to enrolling on courses and completing courses, such as affordability and applicability to work or life needs. Return on investment is just one aspect of that. Encouragingly, in recent days several OU friends have told me of their wish to find external funds and partners to offer OU students and graduates additional ways to increase the benefits they get from studying with the OU, mentoring 2.0 if you will. The OU has the nous, potential sponsors, track record, energy and vision to pull this off without having to cut costs hurtfully, eg through reducing course offers and making staff redundant.

  • Mike Claridge.

    Did not know that there had been a crisis. However, having firstly joined the OU in the 1970’s and taking a B.A. I again took up studies last September in Computing and IT as so much is new in this field. Very pleased that it appears that the crisis is over and look forward to another 50 years of the OU but ate the age of 80 I don’t suppose I shall see it!

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