Open University Branch of the University and College Union - The Spark newsletter
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As autumn arrives, we recognise that that our members are grappling with a huge range of concerns. Many members are immediately affected by the Group Tuition implementation and the regional closures, while others are worried about the impact of Brexit and the HE Bill. UCU is also still trying to win a better pay settlement through a national dispute. And there are ongoing problems we continue to try to address, such as the overuse of fixed-term contracts. As always we invite member responses and submissions to future issues of the Spark.

Group Tuition Policy

As the Spark arrives in your inbox, many of our members across the University are picking up the pieces from the shambolic implementation of the Group Tuition Policy.  

The VC has apologised, announcing a number of reviews into this disaster, and it has certainly been a complex catalogue of errors that will take some unravelling before we fully understand all that went wrong.  In the meantime, UCU can help with some headlines:
  • Management failed to listen to staff concerns about the GTP principles, putting the tutor-student link at risk.
  • Management failed to listen to staff concerns about GTP in practice, missing key elements needed to make it work.
  • Management failed to listen to staff concerns about readiness, resulting in systems which weren’t stable, venues which weren’t booked, and students and ALs without a clue when or where tutorials were being held.
  • Management failed to listen to staff concerns that the closure of regional offices would deal a massive blow to the expertise in student support, with the result that when disaster came there were fewer staff in post to put it right.
Staff rose magnificently to the challenge of supporting our students through this crisis.  The ALs, staff in regional offices and staff in central offices all played their part, working hard to save the University.  We hope that VCE realise this, and we demand that they recognise this.

A payment of £200 has already been announced for ALs. UCU supports this whilst remaining in negotiation to ensure that commitments to review, compensate and consult are met.  We have emailed all members for further information about the extra work incurred by GTP; please contact if you have any further comments to make.

The University must also compensate the many other staff who worked long and unsociable hours as a result of the GTP implementation failures.  We know that many of you have been affected, but we need detailed information from you to support our negotiations.  If you have been affected by GTP, please help us by filling out the survey here  Your information will be used for collective negotiations, and kept confidential.  If you need help for your individual position, please contact to ask for a caseworker.

It is clear that GTP is not an isolated incident.  There are many complex changes under way and staff are rightly concerned about the University’s ability to weather them.  We have in place an executive management body which has not valued the knowledge, expertise and agility of staff, and has placed the University at great risk because of it.  

As we near the 50th anniversary of this great egalitarian institution, this approach must change.  Management must commit to working with staff genuinely and on equal terms, if we are to have any chance of looking forward to another half-century of success.

Contacts for ALs experiencing GTP difficulties
If you have difficulties resolving problems with clashing tutorial deadlines, or other difficulties with GTP, and you can't sort these out with the cluster managers concerned, please contact one of the people named below.

STEM: Steve Walker - Associate Dean Regions and Nations
FASS: David Turton - Associate Dean Student Experience and Nations
FBL: Jane Jones - Associate Dean Student Experience
Health, Wellbeing and Social Care (ex HSC): Roger Davis - Associate Head of School (and copied to Annie Eardley Head of Staff Tutors)
Languages: Sarah Heiser Associate Head of School (and copied to Annie Eardley, Head of Staff tutors)
Education: Liz McCrystal, Associate Head of School (and copied to Annie Eardley Head of Staff Tutors)

If you are still not satisfied, you can seek UCU help to raise a grievance addressed to David Knight.  In no circumstances should you resign because of GTP problems!  Please let the OU branch of UCU know if you have used any of these contacts or are considering a grievance via
Branch President on Walton Hall picket line, July 2016
UCU members on one of our Walton Hall picket lines - UCU national pay dispute

UCU pay campaign update

On 14th October, UCU’s Higher Education Committee met and discussed the pay dispute, and agreed that there remains a strong case for tackling pay erosion, gender pay inequity and casualization.  The HEC recognised the sacrifices that members have already made in taking strike action, and agreed that there should be a consultative ballot of member’s views on next steps to be taken.  Members should have received an email containing the link to the consultation, which will remain open until Friday 11th November 2016.

The latest offer from the employers is:

•    1.1% pay increase (increased by just 0.1% from the original offer)
•    Plans to tackle the gender pay gap
•    Plans to deal with the problem of casual contracts and job insecurity in the sector.

Action Short of a Strike continues whilst the consultation takes place and the next steps are decided.  Many members here and elsewhere resigned from external examining at the request of the union, to show the extent of voluntary work on which the sector relies and the determination to fight for fairer pay.

Members and Brexit

UCU has been at the forefront of calling for protection of EU nationals already living in the UK (who make up about 15% of the workforce in universities) and consideration of the benefits of internationalisation to HE and academic work. For more information see The branch president is part of the informal “Brexit information” management group in the university.

EU nationals who are seeking to apply for citizenship can access an interest-free loan from the university:
In addition, UCU’s legal scheme also offers immigration advice to UCU members:

There is also an OU “International Communities Support Network”. This is a self-organised staff diversity group designed to offer support to staff and students who may feel vulnerable following the EU referendum, and to help inform the university about ways that it can lobby for those affected. For more information please see the Equality and Diversity intranet:

Members’ issues (we call it casework)

The branch has experienced a sharp increase in the number of members’ cases, partly due to the closure of the seven English regional offices.  We are currently reviewing how we can log cases to identify collective issues more easily. What we really need right now is a higher number of caseworkers to spread the workload.

Do you have an issue on which you'd like UCU support?
All member issues are dealt with in strict confidence and we are happy to help.  Contact us on (But please note: do not use the personal or confidential flag on emails to this mailbox as the flags affect the display and there is a risk we could miss your email altogether.)

Develop yourself and become a UCU Caseworker
UCU Caseworkers are provided with specialist training to complete their UCU role, plus mentoring and support on the job from experienced caseworkers.  Caseworker Natalie Olivadoti said, “It is always going to be nerve-wracking taking on your first case as you can never know the answer to everything straight off the bat that a member might need help with - but the UCU team of caseworkers are really supportive and helpful and gradually your knowledge builds up.  Plus, we can draw in expert legal advice from UCU’s regional offices and our solicitors where we need to.  Helping the university to look after its staff ultimately benefits everyone – the colleagues caseworkers advise and support, their colleagues and ultimately down the chain, the students as a result.  I’ve learned a lot about working with others, management and putting policy into practice through my role as caseworker for the union and it feels good to be giving something back to the OU community.”

OU branch of UCU number of new cases by month

Branch Questionnaire on open plan offices

We have produced a questionnaire at the following address to find out about the effects of the new open plan office layouts in Nottingham, Manchester and Milton Keynes. It can also be used by other staff whose office layout has changed in the past year. Please share the questionnaire link with your colleagues including non-members as we would like as many responses as possible.  The questionnaire will close at the end of December 2016.
UCU pumpkin on our recruitment table in the wind tunnel, Nov 2016
Our new "heart unions" table cloth

Close the Gap: gender pay inequality in Higher Education lunchtime seminar

The branch held a lunchtime seminar on gender and pay in July. We were grateful to Helen Carr, UCU National Head of Equality and Participation, for her presentation. Professor Liz Schafer from Royal Holloway, University of London, was also scheduled to speak but was unable to attend on the day.  Liz Schafer, supported by UCU, took her employer to an Employment Tribunal over equal pay in 2011.

On average the pay between men and women in HE differs by 12.6%.  UCU reports that over 50,000 members have used the “Rate for the job” website tool which allows people to check the pay difference at their institution. (  The good news for Open University staff is that on the face of it, the pay gap between men and women is only about 3%.  

However, the OU has a very large and diverse workforce and we intend to follow this up and request statistics for different categories of staff. The gender pay gap among the professoriate may not be the same as the gender pay gap amongst Associate Lecturers, for example.

The Branch Equality Officer has asked the OU how managers are taking forward their duties under the Public Sector Equality Duty and when they last undertook an equal pay audit. If they have he will ask whether he could have sight of, or discuss the audit and in particular how they are addressing any areas of concern.  

One of the members attending the seminar raised concerns over OU discretionary awards and how they are managed, as this is far from transparent. The failure to publish the Equality Impact Assessment for the regional closures was also noted.

If you have any concerns over Equality or discrimination of any kind, please contact the UCU office on 01908 6(53069) or

Fixed term contracts (FTCs) at the OU

One year ago the OU said that the end of a FTC is not a redundancy, and so the university would be paying an “ex gratia” payment instead of redundancy pay for FTCs which started after 1st August 2015.  The ex gratia payment is subject to tax and National Insurance, and student loan repayments are affected by this income.  UCU remains totally opposed to this damaging policy.

Staff whose FTC started before 1st Aug 2015, and who have at least 2 years of continuous service, should receive redundancy pay at the end of their FTC under this policy even if their final extension began after 1st Aug 2015.   However, we have dealt with 4 cases where members should have received redundancy pay but received the ex gratia payment instead.  The OU agreed to refund the tax, NI and student loan repayments, but this involves staff waiting for the next month’s payroll for the correction, and there are still concerns about how the payments are recorded in individual tax records.

The Branch is building a picture of how many FTCs there are across the OU and the impact on turnover, using Freedom of Information requests.  We will also be examining the impact of the VC sign-off process.  For those who haven’t experienced it, this process was introduced so that units would have to seek the approval at the highest level for extending an FTC beyond 4 years, rather than making the staff member permanent. The question is how many staff get permanent contracts as a result, how many continue as fixed-term staff, and whether any are dismissed after VC sign-off has been sought.

At this stage we have accumulated the data in the image below for CAU units.  The mountain we have to climb is to build a campaign for more staff to be transferred to permanent contracts, and to reverse the OU’s punitive stance on redundancy pay when FTCs end.

Lesley Kane, Hon. Secretary and Kate Servant, Vice President
OU Fixed term contracts data, obtained under a Freedom of Information request

The HE Bill and potential consequences for distance learning

The core of the HE Bill is deregulation of Higher Education and the opening of the sector to for-profit organisations. New providers will be able to offer their own degrees from the first day of operation on a probationary basis. The threshold of student numbers will be reduced to make it easier for small private providers to apply for university status.

New providers are likely to concentrate on a narrow range of courses, choosing subjects that are easy and relatively cheap to deliver. Market forces are then likely to result in conventional universities curtailing specialist subjects which are more expensive and resource-intensive.

The Teaching Excellence Framework is about using metrics to replace the regulation of Higher Education. The problem is that metrics will not capture the complexities of the real world, including differences in student intake and from one subject area to another. In schools the use of crude metrics has resulted in “teaching to the test”. This is causing increasing concern to parents, teachers and employers.

As explained on the national UCU website, there will be three categories of provider:
 “registered basic” that are officially recognised, but whose students are unable to access student loans; “approved” that can set fees of up to £6,000 a year; and “approved (fee cap)” provider with higher fee cap of £9,000 in line with inflation depending on how well the institution does in the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework.

For the OU branch, it is worth thinking about the particular impact on distance learning, which may prove to be even more vulnerable to international “cowboy organisations” than the rest of the sector.

A quick look at the multiple scandals in the USA provides serious warnings about what can happen. Sharp practice and misrepresentation when recruiting students are recurring themes. Some cases were outlined in UCU documentation:

Some of these organisations already operate in distance learning.  According to a US Senate report, the default rate on student loans is almost twice as high for graduates of for-profit institutions than for graduates of public institutions.  Rates of completion are generally low, with the 4% graduation rate for online students at the Southern California Campus of the University of Phoenix amongst the lowest. Alongside this, there is evidence that those who do graduate from for-profit institutions are also drawing substantially less benefit in terms of future employment than those who graduate from public institutions.

UCU is giving high priority to opposing this Bill and lobbying against it. There is a huge UCU/National Union of Students demonstration scheduled in London on 19th November (event information:

For more information on the bill, see:

Also worth looking at:

Lesley Kane, Hon. Secretary
UCU members in the wind tunnel for our recruitment table, November 2016
Build the Union - Rosie the Riveter

New Branch website

The branch is considering a new branch website.  The current website was launched in 2008 and is now looking dated:

Our Branch Administrator, Deb, uses a Lotus Notes content management system to update the content on the website.  Deb has been investigating using a Drupal OU website template, and the Communications team are about to develop a new external website template.  If any of you have ideas on how we can improve the information on our branch website then please get in touch:

Articles from the Membership

A Policy Nightmare: Group Tuition

The first attempt to implement the Group Tuition Policy (GTP) on a large scale presentation went into complete meltdown as untested systems and processes crumbled under the pressure and ALs as well as staff in AL Services, IT, SSTs, Faculties and even the VCE scrambled to get basic timetabling information to students and ensure that venues were booked. ALs responded by giving up their own time to reassure and inform students via messages and forums, and showed their ingenuity and good humour as they rounded up their students, got rooms unlocked and improvised with inadequate equipment at venues where booking processes had gone wrong. Staff in the regions and nations, already struggling under the burdens arising from other ‘change projects’ and seriously under-staffed, joined in the valiant efforts to ensure as many crucial first sessions as possible could run for our students.

The October meeting of Senate fell after almost three weeks of chaos at the chalk front. In the run-up, senior management negotiated with both the UCU and the AL Executive for a gesture that might mitigate the damage to students and restore some faith in the policy. The package that resulted included a flat rate payment to affected J presentation ALs, but much more importantly a commitment to have another look at both the implementation and the policy of GTP, this time closely involving ALs in the processes of review and redevelopment.* Affected students are also to be offered some additional support.

On Wednesday 19th October Senate voted in favour of a motion removing the GTP principle that tutorial timetables should be published to students 3 months prior to module start, a requirement that particularly angered ALs because it meant committing to dates before we even know whether or not we have a contract. Many ALs in fact had to rearrange or postpone holidays to make themselves available for a to-and-fro of emails among cluster managers and colleagues to reconcile dates with teams, a task that was particularly complex and frustrating for colleagues with possible multiple appointments.

The main stated aim of Group Tuition Policy is to offer more choice to students by providing an online alternative for every tutorial or day school and clustering student groups to make more efficient use of AL contact hours. In addition the purpose and aim of each tutorial (re-named “learning event”) is set by the Module Team and advertised to students in advance, removing tutor discretion to respond flexibly to student needs.

The policy has led to a great deal of concern among the AL community. The main fear is that GTP will damage the tutor-student relationship as less frequent tutorial opportunities with larger groups (up to 8 tutor groups can be clustered) make it harder for the tutor to build a relationship with her/his “own” group. Furthermore, the effect of clustering is to make journeys to tutorials longer, more expensive and difficult especially on low-population modules and in areas where there is low student density.

The once-simple process by which an individual AL checked their timetables and requested AL Services for any necessary changes has been made immeasurably more complex, requiring protracted negotiations among teams of tutors and a new layer of management. This process is even more time-consuming for the large number of ALs who teach several different modules on overlapping presentations. And in addition to the concerns about the extra unpaid work created by the policy, there is also anxiety that if tutors are not available for the required dates or cause any “difficulties” this could be held against them when decisions about appointments are made.

Hilary Partridge, OU UCU AL rep for Manchester
* Editors’ Note: UCU remains in negotiation with the University to recognise the extraordinary efforts of all staff who have been impacted by the implementation of GTP.

BREXIT: More Work for the Unions?

The result of the vote to exit the European Union took everyone by surprise, so it is not surprising that very little attention had been given to the likely consequences for universities.  We know that access to research funding and European research teams is likely to be affected in the longer term, and there is no guarantee that the 15% of University funding which comes from the EU will be made up by the UK Government.  It might be more difficult for European academics to join teams here in the UK.  The Erasmus programme of student exchange may become unavailable to British students. The OU could be affected in some ways in relation to research, and thus there could be consequences for our members in research teams.  However, we must hope that other opportunities present themselves in a wider global collaborative world.

Does all of this have consequences for us as staff members of the OU?  If the decline in the economy, predicted by many economists, comes about then I feel that, down the line, it will impact on student numbers and, consequently, on AL jobs.  We may get locked into a pattern of increased student fees, a decline in student numbers and higher fees….etc.

Additionally, what does “taking back our sovereignty” mean and what might be the consequences of this?  Prior to 1997, employees’ rights were quite restricted (e.g. there was no legal limit on an employee’s working hours).  Many of our current, beneficial, employment laws stem from 1997 and many owe their origin to EU legislation.  I feel that Unions and their members might need to be very vigilant, and fight very hard in future years, to maintain many of these rights, as those who regard the EU as “meddling” in UK employment laws become emboldened.

Unions have been, and will in future years remain, important.  We are “stronger together”, as the Welsh Football Association motto says, and this certainly applies to the membership of Unions (it is why, too, that I believe in a strong European Union).  

Eric Bowers, OU Branch Executive and AL Rep for Wales

BREXIT: Pat Generalisations

The immediate impulse to come up with an explanation for the Brexit referendum result has led mainly to brash and pat, albeit contested, generalisations so far. In a way, even in being contested those generalisations have gathered weight. The push towards pat generalisation seems to flow from the disposition of the referendum result itself – where the entire issue was reduced to a “yes”/ ”no” choice (no option for “yes, but” or “no, but” or “maybe, if”).  And, of course, the terrifying simplifications of the pre-referendum campaign on both sides, fixated on the credit and debit columns in human and capital account-books, have swept into the aftermath too.

So, statistical indicators suggestive of indecision in the voting population have been received as expressing definite and polarised points of view – according to age, education, region, and so on. To say 51.89% voted “leave” and 48.11% voted “remain” might meet the technical requirement of a referendum decision, but should otherwise suggest indecision rather than division, a general margin of doubt rather than more or less equally decisive and equally large blocks confronting each other. The procedural neatness of arriving at two numerically accountable blocks encourages preconceived explanations: this side is xenophobic, that is cosmopolitan; this side is young, that is old; this side is more educated than that side; this side is London-Manchester-Scotland-Northern Ireland, that side is the rest of the UK; and so on. Grey areas that led to this slim difference are swept away by the clarity produced after the result, which precipitously hardened a this-block vs. that-block perception. The manner in which the result is structured produces the explanations. Each such divisive explanation could then be – and has been – challenged, but the premise of two blocks feeds into the very language which underpins interrogation.  

Perhaps the most sticky generalisation that has emerged post-Brexit is in the identification of “leave” voters with the “white working class” (or simply “working class” where that implies “working class sans ethnic minorities”), so that attention is diverted from all those solidly middle-class or more-than-affluent “leave” voters. There are those who attack this “white working class” for being demons of antisocial separatist behaviour and those who defend this disaffected and oppressed category from elite demonizers. Insofar as both sides go along with the designation “white working class” (or imply its existence as such), both – including the well-meaning defenders – do offence to what the working class has been and is in the UK. To presumptively racialize the working class is to demonise it; to transfer a social category delineated by socio-economic relations and struggle into an essentialized embodied identity politics is to fall in with the preconceptions of prejudice. The fact that the phrase has found happy acceptance in neoliberal government bureaucracies should call for pause, if nothing else does. The educational underperformance of the “white working class” has been a hobby horse for successive UK government commissions for over a decade now. Teresa May mentioned it in her first speech on becoming the post-Brexit PM.  If one looks closely at the evidence this phrase is pinned on in government reports, one finds that it really means “white and claiming benefits”.  “Working class” has become a euphemism for “benefit claimant”, and thus subject to the same kind of patronising liberal racism as poor ethnic minorities have been – hence “white”.  There is no working class in reference there.       

For a detailed discussion by the author on the “underperformance of white working-class students”, and postings on the financial crisis and austerity, see the Framing Financial Crisis and Protest: Comment and Debate page.  

Prof. Suman Gupta, Professor of Literature & History, FASS

Can the Open University get back on track?  If so, which one?

October, 2016: the tutor-student allocation process (TSA) which makes possible those first and vitally important contacts, the booking of study centres for the face to face welcome tutorials, and the notifications of these to students and ALs: all were in such a sorry state that the Vice Chancellor apologised to staff and students. And the problems are ongoing!

At a recent reunion of ex-colleagues who once worked in the OU’s SE regional office, we were shocked (but not at all surprised) to hear how OU systems had imploded. Many attending were the mainstay of student and tutor support teams, East Grinstead (R13) was closed.

Faculty and support staff in the regional office possessed local knowledge about groups, study centres and the educational and cultural configuration of a geographically diverse region.  Students could rely on a named adviser to call them, while the academic assistants and AL services team ensured everyone’s experience of the OU was supportive and and effective!

The architects of Group Tuition claimed it would enhance face-to-face provision; the reality is that in far too many cases introductory day schools and on-line sessions – as well as even simple but vital contact between students and their tutors – are being seriously undermined and indeed prevented.

This “policy”-into-practice reveals that the institution hasn’t delivered the systems to cope with its inflexible (standardised, uniform, centralised) and unworkable strategies.  Last year, a number of concerned central academics circulated a discussion paper called “The OU and the Digital Diploma Mill” *. This was their prediction, which clearly has come to pass:  

with a few remote administrative offices struggling to get tutorial programmes up and running…[it will be] possible to book teaching rooms at a distance and provide some support for ALs and students via the phone and email, but it will be difficult. And the quality of support will undoubtedly decline.  At decisive points the system is likely to fail.

This is the result of the track the OU has taken under a succession of Vice Chancellors who, in spite of making the case for part-time adult students to the Coalition and Tory administrations, have driven the OU straight towards Neo-Liberalism.

We’ve been promised a “searching review” of this latest fiasco.  OU staff on the ground could save the OU the expense of such a review, given that these failures were predicted during the fight to keep the English regional offices.  We know that everything that worked well in the OU is being undermined and the support mechanisms for students and ALs are being systematically removed.

The VC and VCE (with the approval of a Council dominated by external business women and men) are closing down regional offices in spite of Senate’s opposition and all the warnings staff on the ground gave them about the fallout – and the regional centres are being replaced with inflexible, unresponsive, centrally and remotely operated “systems” in service to “Grand Plans” and “Policies” like the “GTP.”

Staff in offices due to close, and those cooped into Call Centres in Manchester, Nottingham and Milton Keynes, are all overworked and demoralised.  Academic and administrative colleagues in the new unwieldy faculties at the centre are not feeling much better!  Our colleagues are being exhausted by attempts to manage the unmanageable and negotiate with a leadership that places little value on staff and their working conditions.  

Of course the VCE will produce reams of “context” papers about changing environments and governmental policies; but those of us who truly understand the OU should renew our campaign for a restoration of the university as an inclusive and affordable alternative for lifelong learners.
We’re at the ‘points’: which track now?
In part we’ve all been playing our management’s game by wringing our hands, but trying to respond positively and piecemeal to every ill-thought-out initiative from on high and trying to implement the impossible. Do we carry on regardless?  Or change track?  If not now, then never.  

Let’s write our own policy document, starting with an appraisal of our ample financial reserves (the OU accounts will be published imminently.)  Why don’t we invest where it matters, in reducing student fees, and in reinstating and expanding the role of the regional office network?  

I am calling for a debate on our terms, not those of the VCE.  And we have to ask if the current senior management is capable of delivering the strategies that might save the OU.  In fact a review of their “functionality” is well overdue.   The current problems are not due to administrative or software failures – they are the failures of the VC and VCE.

Paula James (Retired Staff Tutor, Arts, and Senior Lecturer, Classical Studies, now Visiting Academic)
* full article on our Spark blog:
OU branch of UCU - free items available to members

Publicity Materials

The branch has the following items if any member would like some sent to them, email
  • "Build the union" canvas bags
  • Post-it notes
  • Pencils and pens
  • Lanyards
  • Your Union, your voice, your vote mugs - these have to be collected from Room 015, Wilson C block.

Executive Committee and reps

There is a full list of our Exec Committee on the branch website:

All our reps are listed on this page on the branch website:
Copyright © *|2016 OU branch of UCU|*, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
Room 015, Wilson C Block, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA

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