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An open letter to Iain Stewart MP: Save the OU

Dear Iain Stewart,

I am writing this as one of your constituents and an alumnus of the Open University and one for whom the institution changed the course of my life immeasurably. As the MP for the city where this great institution is based, I hope you will take the time to read this letter which I will also be making public. Unfortunately we are in a position where this drawbridge may be drawn up for future generations. My journey with the OU started in a time of despair. I left university with a foundation degree, worked for five years and during the recession faced redundancy. Struggling to get work, I decided to top up my degree with the OU. I couldn’t have done this any other way, having a mortgage and bills I couldn’t afford to study full time. It was on my first OU course that I discovered social science, the field within which nearly 10 years after beginning this journey I am about to complete a PhD in.

In my time at the OU I realised I wanted to teach. Part of this came through my diagnosis with dyslexia, something missed in my formal education and during my initial higher education study. This lead to me working in a school, for children with special needs alongside my study for a year before undertaking a PGCE training and working with a local school as a teacher. The draw of the OU before was too strong, however and I ended up completing Masters degrees in Social Science and Education alongside working as a teacher. This eventually led to where I am now, a part time PhD student at Staffordshire University writing up my thesis.

As so many others, I also dabbled in subjects out of my comfort zone. Under the current funding system, much of what shaped my experiences are no longer available to students. When I started studying in 2009 there was an option to sign up on an affordable module by module basis. 60 credits (a years part time study) was roughly £490 regardless of whether you already had a higher education qualification or not and there were grants for those who had no degree. For this reason many people continued their study long after graduation. This added more than just numbers, it added richness to the student cohort and allowed many of us to face learning demons. At school I struggled with English, I ended up taking short modellers in Shakespeare and Creative Writing to prove I could do it. The ways which this changed my attitude to learning are immeasurable.

Changes are being made at the Open University that are likely destroy an institution that is part of this countries social makeup and a huge asset for everyone. I’m afraid that through successive government policy and the constraints of a funding model more suitable for three year full time degrees the institution has been boxed into a corner from which it cannot escape without government intervention. Suggestions coming out have included:

moving to more online delivery, something that as a dyslexic student would have been a huge barrier;
reduction of research, it is only through reading the PhD thesis of One of the course team while doing my undergraduate study that I realised it was something that I wanted to do one day;
Rationalising courses, without the breadth of offer, I’m not sure I’d have stumbled across some of the most interesting learning experiences I had.

The problems, however all stem from applying a one size fits all funding model to an institution that is different by design. Governmental intervention is needed to fix this. I urge members of all parties and all houses to urgently look at solutions to this problem. Whilst I am aware there is currently a post-18 funding review, the announcement of the scale of the cuts needed and the redundancies put out by the university this week make this an urgent matter. Once staff are lost they can’t just be replaced. The people are the lifeblood of the institution. Assurances for the future are needed now before the ship is sailed over a precipice from which it cannot return.

In making this letter open, I also urge all current OU students and graduates to do the same. Share your stories, lobby government and help save the institution that has saved so many lives, made so many dreams come true and empowered so many. We are the lucky ones, let’s make sure there are many more generations of lucky ones.

Yours Sincerely,

Jon Rainford

 

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A perfect storm of mismanagement could have lasting, damaging effects

In the neoliberal academy, we are all pawns in a game of league tables and metrics, a data-based game where there is never a winner. That does not mean as individuals we have to concede to work within institutions that have no regard for our value. Many of us would hope that was an intrinsic value, but it seems that many vice-chancellors have even forgotten the extrinsic value of their staff in ensuring their institutions continue to climb the league tables upon which they place so much value.

 

The debate about the damage marketisation is doing to the sector is a separate one, but it is because we are in a market that the USS pensions dispute shouldn’t just concern those staff already employed within those institutions who are part of the scheme. It should be of concern to all staff working in academia as one day they may come under its remit. This is why I, like many working in non-USS institutions are just as concerned with the dispute.

 

Like many other PhD students, I am contemplating where I may want to work and what to do after my thesis is complete. The actions of many senior management teams across the sector have not gone unnoticed. Whilst some have acknowledged the extremely challenging position staff have been put in and extended a fig leaf by spreading salary deductions. Others have taken a more punitive stance. What I am clear on is that I do not want to work for an employer that doesn’t value their staff and I am sure I’m not alone in this. Many vice-chancellors seem to forget that in the run-up to the next REF and TEF cycles, many mobile academics and administrators, who are key to central to the delivery of research projects and teaching excellence will be voting with their feet. This is problematic when their beloved league table positions rely on the commitment of staff to act as victors in their academic hunger games. After all, you are only as good as those who are willing to represent you in the battle. Much of the success in this game relies on the goodwill of the staff and the countless hours they commit to writing papers and preparing to teach over and above their paid hours of employment. This is a goodwill that is being chipped away at by the adoption of hard-line stances by those senior staff.

 

There are many good and proper employers out there, every vice-chancellor has the choice to be one of them. Should they do so, they are likely to reap the fruits of their labours by attracting the best staff. Those who chose not to be are likely to suffer and struggle to recruit the lifeblood of their universities; Academics and administrative staff who are willing to dedicate their lives to producing research upon which the institution benefits.