Heading the Open University, a British institution venerated on a par with the NHS, would be a huge responsibility, Tim Blackman, its new vice-chancellor, was warned by fellow university leaders. But, they said, “we all believe in the OU”.
There have been times in the past few years when this veneration has been tested. The government’s decision in 2012 to raise tuition fees and cut grants delivered a shock to the OU’s business model, which relied on mature and part-time students. Mature students proved reluctant to take on a debt they would have little time to repay and the financial model did not easily support part-timers wanting to dip in and out of learning. Across all UK universities, part-time student numbers fell by 56% between 2010 and 2015. The OU lost a third of its student body, severely affecting its finances.
For 2017-18 it recorded a £17.9m deficit after taxation, which included £13.3m in voluntary redundancy payments. Blackman’s predecessor, Peter Horrocks, resigned in April last year after a vote of no confidence, having proposed making savings of £100m by cutting courses and staff.
Blackman, who took over on 1 October, insists the financial situation was not as bad as had been made out and that the university is now in good financial shape. It will shortly announce a small operating surplus for the past financial year (although, like other universities, its overall financial position has been hit by changes to academic pensions) and predicts surpluses over the next five years, helped by recent cost cutting. He says it also has sound reserves. “Many other institutions would like to be in our position.”
Meanwhile, the OU has recently negotiated new contracts, making more than 4,000 staff on casual contracts permanent, something welcomed by the unions. Student numbers are up 7% over the past year. It is one of the largest universities in Europe, with nearly 175,000 students.
The economic value of learning and the impact it has on careers is one of the three buttons the OU presses that “really send a tingle down my spine”, says Blackman. Another is the university’s commitment to make its benefits available to everyone equally.
Then there is its role in helping people rise to the “grand challenges” the world faces, such as the climate emergency. The OU has a responsibility to create an informed public “rather than seeing the solution as just with experts. We need to engage the public in being experts as well”. The university has been a pioneer and will be doing more to respond to this, he says. “We need to step up in that space.”
He cites the example of Blue Planet, Sir David Attenborough’s wildly popular documentary series, produced by the BBC with the OU as a partner. The university’s platform for free learning, OpenLearn, allowed viewers to find out more, and the resulting public outcry over the damage caused by plastic straws led McDonald’s to drop them.
“I want the OU to be absolutely at the heart of the transition from a carbon economy to a green economy,” says Blackman. He argues its distance learning delivery model is naturally “green” and, already, 100% of electricity on its Milton Keynes campus is from green sources, while only 3% of its waste goes to landfill.
Blackman studied urban geography at the University of Durham, before spending a year as a community worker in Northern Ireland, having become interested in community action as a student, running adventure playgrounds on deprived estates. He returned to Durham to do a PhD before taking a job as a social policy academic at the University of Ulster.
He has managed to cover the full gamut of universities, from Russell Group ones to post ’92s, smaller and larger institutions, ending up – before the OU – at Middlesex.
The OU, he says, has a particular appeal as a prototype of the comprehensive university, an idea he has developed over several years. He explored this in a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute two years ago, arguing that the higher education sector has become too divided between the equivalents of secondary moderns and grammar schools. At secondary school level, he says, the case for comprehensive education has been won, and yet England has the most selective higher education system in the world.
“The complex problems we need to solve nowadays don’t just need individual smart people,” he says. “They need a diversity of perspectives, of experience, of ways of framing and solving the problem.”
The Labour party is interested in exploring how his ideas might fit into its plans for a National Education Service. His wife is Roberta Blackman-Woods, shadow minister for housing, communities and local government and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, who is not standing as an MP in the general election. But, he adds, Labour has tended to be as blind to the needs of part-time students as the other political parties (although last week’s manifesto suggests this could change).
Immediate challenges for Blackman include a multimillion pound changeover to a new computer system, due to be completed by 2022, and the repercussions of Brexit. The OU is less vulnerable than most to the potential loss of EU students, but still has EU staff to look after.
He never thought he would return to the OU (he did a stint there as acting vice-chancellor before heading to Middlesex, which he assumed would be his last job), but the opportunity to lead an organisation that is as much a social movement as a university was one he could not resist. “The mission here is on such a scale,” he says.
“In a society where we are increasingly bothered by divisions, the OU’s position in offering a right to higher education is important,” he says. “Access to education in a way that is inclusive and equitable, which is what we were set up to do, is more important than ever.”
Source: The Guardian