Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Time for OU to Reinvent Itself Again'

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Time for OU to Reinvent Itself Again'

Article excerpt

V-c tells Chris Havergal now is the moment to turn around the decline in part-time study

As a journalist who has spent more than three decades working for the BBC, most recently as director of the World Service, Peter Horrocks' route to becoming a vice-chancellor was anything but typical.

However, looking back on his first year in charge at the Open University, Mr Horrocks (inset) said that academia, and the distance learning institution in particular, had proved to be a "home from home" in many ways.

This doesn't just reflect the historic relationship between the two institutions, which stretches back to the broadcasting of OU content on the BBC and continues to this day; Mr Horrocks said that it also indicated how both were "hugely respected" national institutions with a strong sense of mission and hugely committed workforces.

"There are similarities between the creative independence that BBC people have and the academic autonomy that academics have," Mr Horrocks told Times Higher Education. "Having loved working with argumentative, creative teams in the media, I love working with argumentative and creative teams in the university."

Mr Horrocks is the first to admit, however, that being a leader in such environments can be difficult. Within weeks of taking charge of the World Service, he had to contend with a 20 per cent cut in his department's funding from the Foreign Office, a situation that has parallels with how higher tuition fees and government restrictions on student finance for those already with a higher education qualification have contributed to the OU losing a third of its students in the space of six years.

And, just as Mr Horrocks faced criticism at the BBC for making deep cuts to reporting staff and closing a string of foreign language services, he spent much of his first year at the OU dealing with strike action by members of the University and College Union over his plan to shut seven of the institution's regional centres.

These parallels are not lost on Mr Horrocks. "There are challenges in terms of how you get people who are so believing in their organisation to embrace change because sometimes they can feel as if adapting the organisation might be about undermining what it stands for," he said. "The trick to it is to absolutely respect the historic values of the organisation, but then reinterpret them."

This process of reinterpretation is well under way, and stretches far beyond the closure of the regional centres. The university is investing heavily in tools that will allow academics to create new courses swiftly and respond to market demand, and is pumping more cash into FutureLearn, the OU's platform for massive open online courses.

Earlier this year, the OU launched its first Moocs that offer academic credits towards its degrees. And, most recently, the OU announced that it would seek to become a major provider of degree apprenticeships, in what Mr Horrocks said could amount to a "significant reorientation" for the Milton Keynes-based institution. Few would deny that change is needed. The OU ran up a deficit of £7.2 million in 2014-15, on the back of a £16.9 million shortfall the year before, while the development of Moocs by universities around the world means that the OU has, in many ways, lost its unique selling point. …

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