In Defence of the Open University

While every university claims to be unique and special, the Open University truly stands out. The OU alone accepts students regardless of prior qualifications and at any time of life, and until recently was fairly unique in providing all of its courses as part time, distance learning, allowing students to get a university level education while balancing work and family life. It is one of those unique, fabulous, and brave institutions that define our country, and it’s my alma mater, so seeing what’s been happing over the past few months and years has been particularly hurtful.

I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of people the OU’s given a second change to, having had to leave school at 15 before completing my Highers. When I started to put my life back together in my early twenties one of the first and best things I did was start studying again through the OU, moving from 10 credit ‘Openings’ courses to undergraduate diploma, degree, and finally Masters in 2016. Over ten years of study, all part time while working full time, and paying for each course as it went, avoiding debt. This was only possible because I was able to squeak in the completion of my undergraduate degree before the 2012 changes to student fees.

That change, which trebled student ‘top-up’ fees to £9,000 per year was disastrous for the Open University in particular, and part time study in general, because it was founded on the premise of full time study for people leaving school. The needs of part time learners and mature students were largely ignored. The government complacently claimed that it would be fine as part time students were for the first time being given access to loans via the Student Loans Company on the same basis as full time students, but they were warned that this wouldn’t be the case; that part time and mature students would be more averse to acquiring such a huge debt burden due to other responsibilities – their homes and families.

Furthermore, an earlier change made in 2007, under a Labour government shamefully, withdrew funding from students studying for a second degree at the same level, making it much harder for people to retrain and change careers later in life. This was another group of students whom the OU excelled at supporting.

The result of this has been utterly and depressingly predictable. Part time study across the UK has plummeted with the Open University taking a particularly heavy hit. This is in turn having a massive impact on their revenue, staff and programmes have been cut in response, and student satisfaction is diving. The former Vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, had to resign earlier in April following a failed attempt at making further cuts and an unfortunate and distasteful comment about the nature of OU lecturers’ work. That remark aside, it’s a little harsh to blame Peter Horrocks for the OU’s current woes. He was, after all, only attempting to save the institution as best he thought he could in the face of government policy and the marketisation agenda.

The government’s hand-wringing response to this situation is laughable, with no acknowledgement that it is their own policies that have directly brought about this situation. The fee review announced in February fails, once again, to consider the needs of part time students so it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve anything. The review seems to be in response to Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, something that a Conservative government could never possibly do. The review is unlikely to accomplish anything other than tinkering at the edges, possibly introducing subject variable fees which will likely result in the further devaluing of the already heavily hit humanities. After all, no Tory government wants a well-educated and critically thinking population who might question them.

I think optimistically the best result for the Open University now is for it to be recognised as the uniquely valuable institution it is, and that a separate method of funding is made available to it. On a larger scale, it would be wonderful, even if it is wishful thinking, to pause and challenge the neoliberal dogma that the free market is the solution to all problems. A university education, and a well educated society has its own intrinsic value. For more thoughts on how the OU could be saved, see Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller’s blog post in Times Higher Education.

Session 3: Strategic Leadership, and Culture and Context Part 1

This was the first of two days covering the topics of strategic leadership, and culture and context, with today’s session also having a distinctive theme of reflection running through it. This started with a pre-sessional task to complete a short template document reflecting on an issue of leadership which you had faced at the university, this was then used as a basis for discussion in a group task on the day. I chose the integration of the Turnitin LTI into our VLE, a project which had stalled at the point at which I joined the university, but picked up and drove through to completion. The template we were asked to fill in was very helpful for getting me to think about this issue as a problem of leadership, rather than something technical to be overcome.

The first photo attached to this post shows the result of our morning group exercise, to create a visual depiction of what it means to us to be a middle manager. As a group effort there are various things going on in our drawing; to the bottom left is a comfortable paradise which we are shown to be leaving on our journey to become leaders, the kind that can conquer wild dire wolves. In the middle is someone on a boat, caught in a storm and frantically bailing out water which symbolises the pressures we can be put under, and for some reason there are a couple of people having a birthday party on the beach, celebrating success I think.

One part of this session that I particularly enjoyed was learning about different management styles, the various management theories that have come and gone over the past century or so, and talking about the differences between managing and leading, and how leading can inspire a team and be used to build people up, something we’ll be returning to during the sessions on coaching later in the year. As an aside, I also learned that the origin of ‘leadership’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘laedhere’ meaning guide, and the oldest known written record of this comes from Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ written in Monkwearmouth!

In the afternoon we turned to culture, values and contexts, with topics including the intersections between personal and corporate values, how cultures are defined or formed organically in organisations and the difficulties they face if they wish to change their culture, and how cultures and values can change or be forced to change as the result of external pressures such as, in an HEI context, governmental drive for a return on investment and increasing marketisation, and the changing perceptions, values and desires of students.

The day ended with a discussion on why and how to seek feedback on yourself as a manager and leader. One of the techniques introduced to us was the Johari Window – a concept which defines four aspects, or windows, to knowing ourselves. In the first window, or room, there is that which is public and which we also know about ourselves; secondly, there is that which is public but which we don’t know about ourselves, our blind spot; thirdly there is that which is known to us but no-one else, our private space; and finally the mysterious window of things about ourselves which are not consciously known to either ourselves or anyone else. An exercise we were given to shed light into the blind spot window was a list of adjectives which you give to trusted colleagues and ask them to pick the seven words they think best describe you. I used this technique after the session, giving the list to all of my team and another half dozen people I work closely with, and then collected the responses anonymously. Those responses were then collated to produce the rather re-assuring Wordle above.

The final image for this post is a photo of a disconcertingly simple chart that was drawn during the session showing how managers spend their time, with less time ‘doing’ and more time managing or leading the higher up you go. This has resonated and stuck with me because it helps to make sense of some of the tensions I’ve had in my new role as I am no longer able to spend as much time as I would like doing content creation style work and customer support. How to resolve this tension? Time, experience and this course is helping. It’s helped to define and demonstrate the value and need for my role which is making me more comfortable leading my team and in doing the kind of work that now takes up more of my time. Another option for me, looking a little further ahead, is to cross the line into academia proper, a minor career realignment that I’ve seen many people in my position doing.