Revealed: How cuts at the Open University are being kept from view

We speak to activists challenging the changes on the ground.

When Open University staff read of swingeing cuts to lecturers and the number of courses on offer yesterday, it was the first time many had heard about it. 

A year ago the university – founded by Harold Wilson in the ’60s – announced they would cut £100m from its £420m -a-year annual budget. Yet until now staff have been clueless about where this will come from.

They know have some idea – from a leak to The Guardian. And the cuts are severe: the leak states that the number of courses, qualifications and modules available to students will be slashed by over a third. The research and staffing budgets are being drastically reduced too.

Caitlin Adams, Vice President of Open University’s UCU branch, tells us that most of the planned changes still aren’t in the public domain. 

“Voluntary severance [offers are] designed to ‘catch’ 350 people. But the concern is that after that we’re going to have compulsory redundancies. So staff have no idea whether to put themselves forward now – it’s a game of Russian roulette,” Adams says.

Leaks of the proposed plans have been seized on by staff.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to have any sort of debate. Staff are saying ‘The Guardian knows more than we do’. This hasn’t gone through the machinery of governance structures,” Adams tells Left Foot Forward.

Lydia Richards is the University and College Union’s regional official with responsibility for the Open University.

“The meetings on these changes have been in secret – you just hear rumours, not what’s happening. Every time we find something [out], normally it’s through leaked documents.”

There have been allegations that the university are encouraging staff to sign confidentiality agreements when they join the boards involved in the proposed changes.

“They’re holding everything really tightly – they make general statements on the plans, but you don’t know what that means,” Richards tells the site.

The Vice-Chancellor making these cuts, Peter Horrocks, told the Education Select Committee in February that he deserved his salary of £360,000 as his institution is undertaking “the largest re-structuring redundancy programme ever in UK university history.” For staff, that reads: “I should be paid a lot as it’s hard making huge cuts.”

Meanwhile he is keeping the OU’s workforce in the dark – despite having a strong union presence: “We are being restricted…if we get advance information it’s given to us on confidential basis,” says Richards. 

In such a climate, fears circulate: including that half of staff will have research funding taken out of their contracts. “We think there will be entire departments being targeted, with whole departments not doing research,” the UCU believe.

It is not clear what is behind these decisions. In 2016/17 the organisation reported a small operating deficit of £2.4m – out of a budget of over £400m. Are £100m in cuts really necessary?

“It’s clear [Harrocks] is seeing these changes as commercial,” Richards says.

“I’m usually fairly balanced when it comes to management. But on this one it looks like he’s tearing out the heart of the university.

“When you think about what the OU is – it’s magnificent, and it gives access in a way that no one else does.”

There is still time to challenge these changes. The first big decision making-point is a joint university Council and Senate meeting in mid-April – followed by a Council meeting in July to hammer out the details. But sources believe the timetable may slip.

In the meantime, MPs will be raising the issue in Parliament, while unions decide what their campaign plans are.

Now that the word is out, this issue isn’t going away. No matter how much the OU try to close the lid…

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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