The Open University branch of the University and College Union
Our UCU Regional Official, Lydia Richards, was interviewed on the Today Programme, BBC Radio 4 on 23rd March 2018.
The audio is on https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09vyw3z
Today Programme 23/03/2018 8.46am
Sarah Montague (SM) - "Huge cuts planned by the Open University will destroy the organisation as we know it", so say lecturers reported in the Guardian yesterday. The Open University has said it needs to cut its annual budget by about a quarter, and the Guardian has seen confidential documents that spell out proposals for how those cuts could be made. Well I'll speak to the Vice Chancellor of the Open University, Peter Horrocks (PH), in just a moment, but first though, Lydia Richards (LR) is from the University and College Union and joins us from Cambridge. Good morning to you.
LR - good morning.
SM - and what is your particular worry about what you have seen from this document?
LR - I think we're deeply concerned at cuts that are being made for unknown reasons. We haven't seen the financial evidence that says that there's a reason to make these cuts. It seems like the income and expenditure in the Open University is remarkably stable, and even though there's been some drop in student numbers, the student fee income has actually gone up. Our key concern is that decisions are being made, in secret, by consultants that are coming in, in secret committees where we're not getting minutes, in documents that are secret since the Guardian gets before anyone else, and we can't see what the academic justification is for those decisions.
SM - OK but presumably they wouldn't be making cuts unless they needed to make cuts?
LR - Well that's not a question for me, that's a question for Peter Horrocks. But as we can see it, there is no financial evidence that says they need to cut 100 million off their budget.
SM - OK and if there were, if you could see, look we've got this, we're in tough times, we need to cut 100 million, they have to, they - let's assume, let's give them the benefit of the argument for the moment, I'll go, I'll be going to Peter Horrocks in a moment, let's assume they have to do it, it's always going to be a challenge, isn't it?
LR - yes it is going to be a challenge, and what we'd like to see is decisions taken properly through the academic structures with academic governance, where things aren't trying to be hidden from them, where actually Senate can have oversight on it, and we can actually have confidence that any decisions that are taken are good ones, are good for staff, are good for students, and are providing high quality education.
SM - because what is here will destroy the Open University?
LR - We're really concerned about it. The Open University is a magnificent institution, you know, anyone that wants to go and do a course there should really come along, and that's a message we want to send out to prospective students. What we're seeing is potentially huge long-term damage in the future.
SM - Lydia Richards, thank you very much. Now listening to that as I say is the Vice Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, good morning to you.
PH - Good morning Sarah, good morning Lydia.
SM - What is the justification for these cuts?
PH - They aren't cuts, they're reprioritising. They're about investing in the future of the Open University, which is, as Lydia says, is a wonderful national asset, which is there for our students, for our staff, but much more importantly for the wider British society and economy. The world of the workplace and the world of learning are changing in an unparalleled fashion. The Open University no longer receives direct public funding or only very small amounts of it, so in order to ensure the Open University can preserve its open-ness, its socially inclusiveness, its brilliant innovation, and its care for its students
1SM - right
PH - and for its staff, we need to change resources, so
SM - hold on
PH - it's not for a financial crisis, it's to choose to do the right things.
SM - so hold on one second. So the line that keeps being repeated about you, about the Open University needing to cut 100 million from your 420 million a year annual budget, is that correct or not?
PH - no it's not, because we're reducing resources by 100 million, in order to reinvest, so 70 million pounds we've reinvested into the future of the university, in the future of our students, and 30 million pounds is needed in order to correct a deficit which is caused largely by the collapse in part-time students caused by policy in England, which has meant that fees have gone up, so that students who are older don't, feel that they can't, afford those fees.
SM - so, ok so 30 million is the problem bit, because you've got a shortage of part-time students, and obviously the university, the Open University, takes a lot of those. The 70 million is what? I mean, you're talking about reprioritising. What does that actually mean?
PH - It means investing in services for our students. It means investing in services for their mental health. It means reinventing our technology. The competition that we're facing is from massive American technological giants, organisations like Facebook, with commercial motivations. We have a social, we have a socially progressive motivation. We want to help Britain to survive the changes that are going to happen in the workplace.
SM - What, so the argument is do less, do it better?
PH - No, it's not about doing less, it's about reprioritising, as any sensible organisation needs to do, to decide for the future that we want to invest in our people, we want to invest in our systems, we want to invest in supporting our students, and we are going to innovate, as the Open University has for fifty years, for the benefit of British society, and that's what any organisation that’s future-focussed needs to do. I care deeply about the concerns of our staff and our unions but this is the right thing for the university and for the society.
SM - you'll know that one of the criticisms that has been made by lecturers is that your, with these plans you are reducing the Open University to a digital content provider, and what strikes me is you use the example of Facebook there.
PH - Yes because one of the really interesting things that’s happening with learning which is challenging but also exciting is that learning is becoming a linked social experience. People, especially adults who are already in the workplace, are learning from each other, in work, and increasingly through universities. So that wonderful exciting world of people being able to learn from each other, from people in other countries, from people who are working in similar work places, we can create that learning environment. Add to that the fantastic research and the brilliant caring skills of the university's tutors, we are reinventing the future of learning that is going to help to transform British society in a positive way.
SM - so closer to a MOOC than the old ..?
PH – no not at all, not a MOOC. This is about collaborative, shared, social learning, that's good for the student and good for our society. And the Open University is leading the way in Britain and the world. That's what this is about: an exciting, positive change for students and society.
SM - Peter Horrocks, thank you very much.