Open University Branch of UCU newsletter, the Spark
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The Spark - Regional Campaign special issue - November 2015

OU UCU members at our Council "not a rally" - 24 November 2015

Campaign update #saveOUregions

Today Council voted against the wishes of Senate to close 7 English Regional Offices. This is a flawed proposal based on flawed modelling, with poor timing and no discussion of real alternatives. UCU is hugely disappointed at this ill-advised decision.

A day of strike action will take place on 25 November, followed by rolling strike action in the regions/nations and UCU members working to contract over the next 10 days.

Over 6400 people signed the petition against these proposals, which was presented to the Chair of Council before the Council meeting. Twenty-nine MPs have signed an Early Day Motion opposing the closures.

With 72% of our members voting for strike action, and 82.7% voting for ‘action short of a strike’, the union has a clear mandate for industrial action on this issue. This is the first local dispute in which members have ever been forced to ballot and take action at the Open University.

Senate said ‘no’, staff said ‘no’ and many students/alumni also said ‘no’ to these proposals. Council has taken a terrible decision that could be very damaging for the reputation and future of the university. We will continue to fight these closures.

Contact your MP – Join the Campaign.  
For more information contact
Petition address:
Early day motion:

OU UCU Regional Campaign Action List: what can you do?
  • Sign the petition at this address: and forward the petition to others who may be interested.
  • Find out if your MP has signed the Early Day Motion (, if not ask them to do so.  There is suggested text for contacting your MP on the branch website or email
  • Use social media to promote the cause and publicise the campaign – tweet using the #saveOUregions and your tweet will automatically appear on this page on the branch website:
  • Members are welcome to borrow a UCU pink T-shirt to take a selfie photo, then send it to or tweet it with #saveOUregions.
  • Send messages of solidarity to colleagues in the English regional centres.
  • Take part in the industrial action to support the campaign – all members are being asked to strike for 2 days according to the regional schedule sent to members on 10th November 2015.
Rally outside the OU office in Leeds - we had support from the Leeds University branch of UCU

An Analysis of the Financial Case for Regional Closures

This reclassified paper gives chilling insights into the locations analysis

It finds “no compelling rationale” for the current distributed network configuration. However, the selection of the now-favoured option is not justified financially. It rejects option 4 (closing 3 regional offices but incurring the lowest one-off costs (including severance) at £7.1m of any option). This implies the loss of far fewer of the experienced staff mentioned in the risk analysis sections.
These sections accept that regional closures would be most significant change in the history of the OU and lists the risks as:
  • losing experienced, skilled staff
  • destabilising staff morale, and the effect on services to students
  • Increased levels of concern for students.
Accepting such a risk level suggests that the real aim is to transform the OU. Such a transformation (which will look good on senior manager CVs when they move on) is a massive gamble. Distance and online teaching has its place. But by itself it would be far less attractive than other university offers.

Management has been thinking about finances. They have to, at least minimally, fund redundancies and fill the financial hole left by the previous regime. The chosen option has the major advantage of allowing a huge ‘fire-sale’ of the 4 university-owned properties to convert these assets to cash. Management hopes to raise at least £13.2m, more if a change of use on Boars Hill, Oxford can be secured.  This paper shows that our regions are being closed to pay for an ideological transformation of the OU.

UCU member
Branch President Pauline Collins at the "not a rally" 24 Nov 2015
Members at our "not a rally" outside the OU Senate meeting, October 2015

Democracy under threat?

The Open University is governed by two representative bodies, which ensure that decisions are taken democratically, with a thorough understanding of the potential impacts across the complex organisation.  Senate is the academic authority of the University, whilst Council is the University’s ultimate governing authority, respecting Senate’s views on academic matters.  VCE does not govern the University: it may prepare policy and strategy proposals, but its responsibility is for implementing what is agreed by the governing bodies.

As the academic authority Senate has a clear interest in study support arrangements, and with an appointed membership including students, associate lecturers, researchers, academics and academic-related staff it has a breadth of experience which it would be perilous to ignore.  On 14th October Senate considered VCE’s recommendation to close seven regional centres, and voted to recommend Council to refuse it.  Senate advised VCE to explore other options, taking advice from the academic units, ALs and students.  VCE quickly confirmed that the original recommendation would go to Council unchanged.

This flat rejection of advice from Senate does not bode well for the future, and undermines the democratic governance on which the University is based.   VCE’s reluctance to share the evidence behind the proposal does not demonstrate respect for other members of the University.

Students, staff and alumni of the Open University care deeply about its mission and its future.  We must fight to retain the democratic governance which protects it from risky speculation.  The Open University is a national treasure, and we will not see it go down on our watch.

Council will consider the proposal on 24th November 2015.

OU UCU Executive Committee member

The Impact on Students and Staff in the Regions: A View from Staff at the Bristol Regional Office

At present students have a knowledgeable experienced team of specialists working at the Bristol Regional Centre, who can also apply their regional expertise and knowledge within their different job roles.  Alongside key functions such as educational advising and assigning students to tutors in the region and organising suitable tutorial locations for students, we also offer a wide range of other support and advice.
An exam support team organise suitable locations for regional exam centres as well as individual home based exams for students with additional needs. As part of this process exam invigilators are recruited trained and deployed to support student exams within sub-regions within the South West.
The regional disability team advise and support all of our students with additional needs, and have developed considerable knowledge of student requirements and resources available within the South West region.
Careers Advisers can also advise students with postgraduate study/career employment plans within a regional context.
We also recruit, train and support tutors working in the South West.  This creates a real feeling of seamless teamwork, which from the many testimonials we have received, is noticed and appreciated by students and tutors.  Bristol is a region where everyone works together.  We have a specialist regional marketing team who organise regional information events in the regional centre as well as libraries throughout the whole of the South West.
All of this local expertise would be lost, directly hitting students and ALs.  Multiply this sevenfold for the impact if seven regional centres close.
As for the office-based staff, we may be offered re-deployment options in Milton Keynes and possibly Cardiff, although to date we have received no information on the potential for any future employment.
Liz White, UCU rep in Bristol

The Impact on Teaching Methods - a view from a Staff Tutor

The proposed dismantling of a large part of The Open University’s regional and national office network – including the Bristol centre which covers the South West – is likely to negatively impact on student’s experience of distance learning.
All staff working at, or linked to, the Bristol Regional Centre – including more than 400 Associate Lecturers who live and work in the South West -  have worked hard to promote and deliver effective Supported Open Learning; the teaching method of the university.
For students and tutors, Bristol offers a first class study venue, big enough for day schools, with lots of smaller rooms for break out activities, which is ideal. Students like coming to the regional centre and feel a direct connection with their university.
For regional academic staff the office’s city centre location, close to the main train station, make it a good venue for employer and community group meetings. This has particular relevance to the social work and nursing programmes whose success rests on the strength of the partnerships between employers, students and the university.
The student support staff in Bristol have built up tremendous knowledge of the region and their students. I fear that a move away from locally based regional provision will lead to an erosion of the knowledgeable, individual, and attentive support that students receive from the university’s advisors.
Models of distance learning tuition that do not prioritise effective individual support for learners may experience higher dropout rates, and lower levels of attainment and satisfaction. I am not convinced the proposed new university structure will counter this concern.

Robert Lomax, HSC Staff Tutor
UCU and UNISON members at the flash outside the OU office in Camden, London

Will the Open University become a digital diploma mill?

‘We promote educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.   Through academic research, pedagogic innovation and collaborative partnership we seek to be a world leader in the design, content and delivery of supported open learning.’
OU Mission Statement

What will happen to this mission if the OU closes most (or any) of its regional centres?
How would such closures change the OU’s role and educational quality?
What wider agenda underlies the change?

What are implications for UK higher education as a whole?

[Conclusion] As the global leader in high-quality distance education, the OU has long had many low-cost, low-skill competitors.  We face the question: Will the OU now copy its cheap imitators?  Or can we once again defend the OU’s original vision of high-quality education for all?

For the full article, go to:

Written by a group of OU UCU members

AL workload and pay

As some AL members will know, we have been running module specific versions of our AL workload survey for modules that were too new when the last one was run. Due to other events we are running late with processing these, and so far have looked at the results from seven.

In the interests of honest reporting, the pay looked reasonable for the hours worked on one. The other six, whose results are documented in the tables below, were not so good.
I am flagging up time spent on study and self-directed CPD, and on admin and interaction with colleagues, in columns 4 and 5, because the OU does not currently recognise these as part of the AL job (at least for purposes of remuneration).

Many members will be aware that there is more than one way of looking at statistics. Both the median and the mean are types of average. But however we looked at the data on these modules, the workload seemed excessive for the pay. Other causes of excessive working hours for the pay are the time taken to mark TMA scripts, and the underpayment of time spent supporting students via email, telephone, etc.

Lesley Kane, Hon, Secretary

R13 closure – an experience we don’t want to repeat

The experience of losing the R13 centre in East Grinstead leaves little doubt that proposals for further closures will impact negatively on students and ALs, and it is hard to see how this will not result in loss of students.  

Many ALs have contacted us about their experiences in R13.  Common laments are the loss of long-standing, supportive relationships with much valued colleagues; newly recruited, inexperienced staff struggling to understand essential processes, though doing their best in difficult circumstances; and the impact on students as local knowledge was lost.  Particular issues included:

  • ALs allocated to new line managers they don’t know and may never meet;
  • difficulties understanding established staffing processes, e.g. maternity cover;
  • delays in enrolment leaving anxious prisoners unsure whether they would be studying or not, and the Education Officer only able to chase by email;
  • confusion over whether a secure NHS hospital was a prison or not;
  • high numbers of mis-allocations at 15B TSA as local postcodes were not known, and 15J TSA on a last minute wing and prayer;
  • tutorial timetables not reflecting agreed versions;
  • lack of local knowledge about tutorial venues, leaving tutors to fill in the gaps;
  • last minute, uncommunicated changes to local venue arrangements, leaving tutors and students in confusion at tutorials.

In conclusion the following comments from an R13 colleague seem to sum it up:
“Keith Zimmerman seems confident he can close all the regional centres, lose all the staff and their experience and run an effective call centre operation. As someone who worked for a company with years of experience running calls centres and managing change, I am afraid he is very deluded. He has no effective plan to transfer skills or develop IT and processes to support or replace experienced people.

In my opinion this, the general way the management team are behaving, and government policy driving these changes is a serious threat to the OU’s mission and undermines our ability to serve students in the next 50 years”

Lesley Kane, Hon. Secretary

UCU national pay claim update

Following consultation with UCU branches, UCU’s Higher Education Committee have voted to ‘note’ the 2015 final pay offer, and to develop a campaign for the next negotiating round.  Effectively this means that UCU does not accept but will not take action against the 1% offer for 2015.  Instead it will focus on a long, strong campaign for 2016.   Further details can be found at:

The 1% cost of living rise will be implemented in the November 2015 payroll.

OU management downgrades the rights of fixed term contract (FTC) staff

Historically the OU has much to be proud of, but undermining the rights of employees who are already vulnerable is one “cutting edge” role that our management should be ashamed of.
Fixed term contract staff are now being told, inaccurately in most cases, that the end of their contract is not a redundancy, and they have no right to redundancy pay even if they have over two years’ service, which is the normal starting point for redundancy pay.

It follows that other rights will be called into question, and it is likely that the OU will end up in court over this, paying a very large amount of money to expensive lawyers. In the last analysis this will be public money, and money coming from students.

Currently the OU is still making a payment to FTC staff at the end of contract, but are saying it is ex-gratia, and it looks as if strings may be attached.  IF any member is on the receiving end of this, or if you hear of anyone else being on the receiving end, please let us know.  

UCU is taking this very seriously, and will challenge it. We are mindful of the effects on fixed term staff in the OU, and on Britain’s wider research community, and of the social implications for vulnerably employed staff in the UK.

UCU will vigorously fight to defend the rights of any member who is denied redundancy pay at the end of their FTC.  If you are told that you are not entitled to redundancy pay in this situation, contact urgently for advice.

Lesley Kane, Hon. Secretary

Other branch news - USS changes

There is a new USS website called Fit for the Future at this address:

Travelling to work is “work” – new European court ruling

Read full article at this address:

Anti-Trade Union legislation

You might have read about the Westminster government's plans for trade unions which include:
  • requiring higher thresholds for union ballots than for other organisations or for politicians' elections
  • notifying police and employers of any planned union protests weeks in advance and even giving advance notice of our intention to use Twitter or Facebook to advertise campaign activity
  • restricting time off for union representatives to support members and making it harder for us to collect your union subscriptions through your salary
  • making it easier for the employer to negate the impact of industrial action when it does take place, including extending the notice we must give and allowing the use of agency labour to break strikes
  • more stringent rules on who can join a picket line and what they can do when they are on it.
The motives behind this are pretty transparent: it is an attempt to weaken the influence of trade unions and increase the power of employers. UCU is working with the TUC to campaign against the Trade Union Bill currently going through parliament. You can help to defend trade union rights including the right to strike by:
  • raising the issue with your local MP, there is an online form on the UCU website to do this.
The TUC has a “right to strike” petition at this address:

Say no to the “dodgy” trade deal TTIP

TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is a free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the US and Europe.  Supporters argue that it would create an integrated market which could reduce trade tariffs and prices.  However, opponents argue that it would threaten public services, including the NHS, and put pressure on governments not to enact environmental laws by allowing companies to sue governments which may be seen as hindering their profits.  Please visit this website for more information, and to find out how you can say “NO” to TTIP (transatlantic trade and investment partnership):
A group of UCU members supported a picket line in Edinburgh where members were on strike for 7 days at the Museums of Scotland.

New UCU reps

We are very pleased to report that Elaine Walker has volunteered to be the interim UCU rep for Manchester, thank you to Elaine!  Our rep in Cambridge, Glenis Moore, has now left the OU after many years of service; thank you to Glenis and to Steve Cooper, who has agreed to be the new UCU rep in Cambridge.  

The branch would also like to thank Graham Storey for being the UCU rep in Gateshead, Graham retired from the OU at the end of October after 40 years of service!


New OU UCU “our university, our voice” branded items available

If anyone would like some of our new branded items with the winning slogan “our university, our voice”, please contact the branch office on or 01098 6(53069). The new items are pencils, coasters and pads of post-it notes but there are also pens, lanyards, cloth bags and some UCU pin badges available.

No more UCU paper application forms

Please note that UCU have had to stop using paper application forms – all new members now need to join on the website:  This does also mean that new members cannot now pay through their OU salary.  UCU have launched a “join by phone” service so new members can also phone 0333 207 0719. (03 numbers are charged at standard rates.)
Copyright © 2015 Open University branch of the University and College Union, All rights reserved.

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