Staff and courses at Open University may be slashed in major overhaul
Is this the beginning of the end for the Open University? Source: Shutterstock

The distance learning provider Open University, one of Britain’s largest universities, is reportedly proposing cuts to its staff and courses, the effects of which lecturers say could destroy the institution.

More than a third of the number of courses, qualification and modules will be slashed, while the workforce will be reduced by cutting £15-20m off its budget, according to confidential documents seen by The Guardian.

It’s a move so significant that lecturers are worried how the changes may impact the quality of OU’s degrees. They say the changes will “destroy the OU as we know it” and reduce it to “a digital content provider”.

“We are sharing this information in strict confidence to give the senior team early sight of the direction of travel,” the document says.

The axing of 41 undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses is expected, including courses such as science, business, music and classics, though there aren’t any final decisions on these yet. Staff is being offered voluntary severance plans (Staff at the University of Liverpool has been offered the same.)

An OU spokesman said: “The Open University must change to deliver its core mission of supporting students from all backgrounds to fulfil their potential through education and to equip them for a fast-evolving world. Our plans will ensure the OU is agile and innovative to meet the needs of students, business and the country for decades to come.”

He added: “We are today announcing a voluntary severance programme. This covers everyone – support staff, professional services teams and much of our academic community (but, to avoid any impact on students, not the tutors who oversee our students’ study).”

A spokeswoman for the University and College Union (UCU) said: “UCU members are hugely concerned at the cuts that are being mooted at the Open University. The proposals under discussion would destroy the OU as we know it, turning it from a world-leading distance education university into a digital content provider. In the process, we risk losing the research base that underpins our work with the BBC, and the personal tutorial element that supports our students.

“The branch understands that a very large sum has been set aside which, going by average payments, means voluntary severance is expected for at least 250-300 individuals in the coming year. Staff expect that large-scale compulsory redundancies may follow given the scale of the announced cuts.”

Established in 1969, the OU last June announced a radical overhaul in a bid to save £100m from the annual budget of £420m, to reinvest in its digital transformation.

updating technology, redesigning curricula and retraining staff. The remaining £30m-£35m needs to be cut from the budget to secure financial stability in the face of looming operating losses due to funding changes, falling student numbers, competition and high fixed costs.

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