Open University cuts will hurt vulnerable students the most

Closed door

Since the Open University (OU) was launched in 1969, almost two million students have passed through its doors, working to achieve their dream of getting a degree. Many come to us with little education beyond GCSE and we have prided ourselves on helping them to change their lives through our tried–and-tested system of distance education delivered locally. That system is now under serious threat.

Last month the Open University announced that it would shut the doors of seven of its nine regional centres in England, including the one where I work. This will mean relocation for a few, but redundancy for more than 500 people working in those centres. Management insists that the plans are driven not by finance but by a desire to “put students first”. This just doesn’t stack up.

They are right in thinking that this drastic move will radically alter the student experience – but my colleagues and I don’t think it will be for the better. The big idea is that by concentrating support in just three of the centres in England – Manchester, Nottingham and Milton Keynes – and four in the rest of Britain and Ireland, the university will be able to afford to stay open a few hours longer each evening to answer student queries.

It seems unlikely that the people answering the phones and emails will be the academics who are empowered make decisions on how those calls are acted on (granting extensions, authorising additional support, advising on careers, offering advice on future course options and so on). So what will be the benefit for students? Not much.

Management has tried to justify the proposal by pointing out that many students never set foot in a regional office – but it is the more vulnerable and disadvantaged that often do. Students with disabilities and mental health issues, students in need of individual support sessions, PhD students requiring supervision, students with childcare issues (usually women) who can only attend daytime tutorials, students seeking careers advice – they all rely on regional offices.

As does student X, who suffers from chronic anxiety and wanted to take her exam in the familiar setting the regional centre provided. And student Y, whose computer had broken down and needed to use one of ours to meet a submission deadline. The regional offices provide a lifeline for these and many, many students like them. It is hard not to see this shrinking of local support as a shrinking away from the very students the OU was set up to serve.

Regional centres don’t only serve students. My office is also used by numerous research groups for public talks, training events with our tutors, meetings with employers, interviews for new staff, by an educational charity that is given space it could not otherwise afford, and by various university committees for meetings.

In response, the university says it will hire office space from commercial providers as needed. But the staff in regional centres have expert local and institutional knowledge. They have contacts with the study centres where our tutorials are held and can step in when things inevitably go wrong. They maintain contacts with education officers in local prisons. They know the right person to send to invigilate a home exam for students with particular problems. And what about the academics like me who will become homeworkers? We will be cut off from the creative exchange of ideas that makes workplaces work.

Should the closures go ahead, the shortest journey for any of the affected staff from a current centre to their next nearest would be from Oxford to Milton Keynes – a distance of 40 miles. Staff in Gateshead will have to endure a five-hour round trip of 250 miles to their nearest centre in Edinburgh. And does anyone seriously believe that the needs of a student or tutor living in Penzance can be best met by someone sitting at a computer in Nottingham or Milton Keynes? Is this really putting students first?

We’re not known for our militancy at the OU. If you dust off the archives, you will not find any record of union members taking strike action, apart from in national disputes. We are now being balloted for strike action and even staunch opponents of industrial action say they are prepared to come out on strike, me included.

Much of this anger comes after the university insisted at the end of last week that it was going to push ahead with the plans despite the OU senate rejecting the proposals. The senate described the plans as “very high-risk” and “failing to support the academic mission of the university”. They also advised the university to explore other options. However, the OU announced the next day that it was determined to push ahead with the plans, which will now go before the University’s main decision-making body, the council, on 24 November.

I’m delighted to see awareness of and opposition to the closures is growing and spreading beyond the confines of the OU, as articulated by one of my colleaguesearlier this week. Our petition has already received more than 5,300 signatures and MP John Mann has tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons that opposes the closures.

The OU has operated successfully for nearly 50 years by blending contemporary technologies with direct and personalised contact. It’s about to risk both its operational effectiveness and institutional reputation unless it recognises this simple truth: distance education needs local dedication.

[“source-theguardian”]

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