When I first starting working at the Open University as a central academic in 2009, a very experienced colleague described the OU as like an oil tanker - the engines are turned off and it keeps going in the same direction for a few hundred miles. Now I don't know anything about oil tankers but over the coming years I got to know quite a lot about the OU and I understand the analogy to mean that the OU is such a mammoth enterprise that any change takes a very long time to kick in.
It was regularly criticised from within for this slow movement and I once delighted in a professor standing up and proclaiming that 'we either need to shit or get of the pot' when making a decision about summer schools. It turns out we did - shit that is - and the science summer schools were lost to us as part of cuts to make much needed savings. Since that time, various changes have been made to the OU's teaching with more and more material becoming online only and face to face tutorials replaced with online conferencing tools. Each of these changes have pros and cons and I am not going to judge them here. One thing that has remained brilliantly consistent over the last 15 years since I have been involved with the OU is the utter dedication to producing the highest quality teaching materials, which quite frankly put other universities to shame. This process is slow and requires a team effort from numerous academics, managers, editors, artists and graphic designers. The process is articulated beautifully in a recent blog by Claire Kotechi.
This blog was written in direct response to some careless, if not utterly stupid comments made by the VC of the Open University, Peter Horrocks, who had the audacity to say that central academics (i.e. the creative academic minds behind all OU courses) did not teach. I say audacity here because he has, as far as I am aware, never taught (his background is at the BBC) and he has therefore not be part of the carefully crafted module production process that OU academics put blood, sweat and tears into on a daily basis.
I was visiting the OU not long after the ill-fated comments, which were followed by a half-hearted apology, and discovered that he is facing a vote of no-confidence soon. This vote is not driven by his comments that day but a much longer line of problems and mismanagement that threatens to destroy the university (and some of which stems before his time). And this brings me to my headline thought. Sometimes in times of difficulty, it is easier not to the rock the boat - just to keep going, dig your heals in and do what you do best. For the OU culture, that is producing high quality teaching resources for anyone who wants to learn and I think there is definitely something to be said for this approach. For the OU strategy, however, to not change now would be to continue with a line of cuts and dis-empowering of academic staff. In this case, I think the best thing for the OU is to change it's strategy and maintain its culture. If that strategy means losing a VC, or in the very least having his team change their strategy significant, in order to maintain a team of dedicated teachers, producing high quality teaching material then I think it is about time this oil tanker gets rocked and maybe that rocking can take it back to basics.