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Thursday, November 05, 2015

Waking up!

Haven't posted here for a long, long time, but wanted somewhere to park this. I've been trying to  persuade my MP to sign EDM 509 in defence of the OU's regional centres & tonight wrote him this essay in response to his very reasonable queries:

Dear Martin,

Thank you very much for this considered reply. I won't be able to take up your offer of attending the surgery, but I'll try to explain my concerns a little more.

The OU employs part-time tutors who provide both face to face support via local tutorials (my groups meet in the evening at Franklin College) & online support through group forums & email. This is in addition to one-to-one teaching through feedback on students' written assignments. Since the OU started back in the early 1970s, the organisation of student groups, employment of tutors & booking of suitable venues has been carried out by a network of 13 regional offices. Each of these offices has built up a vast amount of experience & local knowledge about its own catchment areas.

In addition, the regional centres provide valuable administrative & pastoral support to both students & part-time tutors. For instance, they host dayschools where students from several groups can learn together, deliver the OU's careers guidance service, liaise with local employers & providers of services for disabled students, act as examination centres & organise local publicity & recruitment events across the region. Tutors visit these centres for job interviews, briefing & training events, & staff appraisals. This is where we meet our managers, who have extensive personal knowledge of how we work & our own likely support needs, & occasionally our colleagues, since OU tutors normally work from home.

The OU is proposing to close most of the regional centres in England, leaving just two of the original ten. Tutors & regional staff are united in fearing that removing this support network will leave the OU unable to deliver the support that students & their tutors need, since so many experienced staff (up to 500) will be lost, along with their local knowledge. The OU closed one regional centre (in South-East England) a year ago, leading to administrative chaos, lowered staff morale & a general decline in student satisfaction. (I also work with some students in national forums & was quite startled to see how those from the South-East were getting a 'raw deal' in comparison to those who still had their regional centres.)

It doesn't entirely surprise me that you haven't heard from any other constituents about this issue. I may even be the only OU tutor in your 'patch'. Sadly, Higher Education doesn't have a very high profile in our constituency (all the more reason why the OU matters here). Precisely because the current arrangements work so well, students themselves are not aware of everything that goes on behind the scenes to support their studies. Students in our area - if they have noticed the proposals at all - may have seen that the Nottingham office is not scheduled to close, but what they may not have realised is that this office will no longer be supporting undergraduate students & tutors in the local area. All the important roles it used to carry out will be transferred elsewhere - to Milton Keynes in the case of my subject area. Effectively the office supporting Cleethorpes area OU undergraduates will cease to exist.

Since I originally wrote to you, the OU's own Senate - the highest academic body in the governance structure - has voted against the plan, concluding that it is 'operationally and reputationally very high risk and fails adequately to support the academic mission of the university'. Despite this, the proposals will be put before the OU Council for approval later this month. That's why my tutor colleagues & I feel this Early Day Motion is so important. We know EDMs directly change nothing & rarely get debated, but they are a valuable way to demonstrate nationwide concern about an issue. We also appreciate that government cannot intervene in the OU's running of its own affairs, but individual MPs can express their disquiet over the way this is being done & the potential impact on their constituents.

Personally, I'm quite saddened by the absence of Conservative Party signatories on EDM 509, as this really isn't a party political matter. Some of my colleagues have received standard replies from their Conservative MPs, quoting the OU Vice-Chancellor's reassurances that these changes are in students' best interests. As experienced tutors, we don't believe that to be the case, as I've explained above, & we're rather puzzled by the adoption of a 'party line' on this. I do hope you'll consider signing, & you're also very welcome to pass on this email to to the relevant minister(s).

I apologise for the length of this reply, but having worked for the OU in Grimsby & Cleethorpes for almost 40 years & seen it transform so many lives, I am genuinely distressed at the prospect of a wonderful institution being damaged by such reckless changes.

Thank you for listening.

- Lynne -
(Dr. B. L.Dixon)


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