Staff at the UK’s Open University, which offers distance learning and education options for non-traditional students, are currently in a strike ballot over job losses and the closure of seven regional centers that has put more than 500 jobs at risk.
The OU is looking to close seven locations, including Bristol, Birmingham, Cambridge, Gateshead, Leeds, and Oxford, in an effort to streamline student support. The institution is also considering closing its London location, although it may consider keeping a smaller location in the capital.
According to a spokesman for the university, the decision comes as a response to the changing needs of its students rather than a change in funding.
The staff members who currently work in these locations, who total around 500, would be offered the opportunity to transfer to one of the two other offices that focus on student support services, or to the OU’s headquarters in Milton Keynes. Those who choose not to transfer would need to take voluntary severance or early retirement.
Staff members argue that following through with the plan would limit opportunities for face-to-face interactions and change the ethos of the institution. After a senate meeting last week resulted in a rejection of the plan, calling it “high risk” and “failing adequately to support the academic mission of the university,” the University and College Union (UCU) has decided to ballot for strike action over the closures because the university has decided to continue with the plans.
UCU Open University branch president Pauline Collins said: “Axing over 500 staff across seven centres would be catastrophic to the Open University’s ability to provide the kind of support that students need. We hope the university will now see sense and work with us to find a better solution for staff, students and the future of the Open University.”
The OU maintains that the offices which may be closed were not mainly used as teaching centers. Therefore, student services and support would not be affected.
Closing the centers could save the university around $7.5 million of a total budget of over $600 million. The money could be beneficial to the institution, which has seen a decrease in the number of part-time students by about 10%, a result of changes to higher education funding, including the introduction of tuition costs, reports Harriet Swain for The Guardian.
A new structure is set to be in place by February 2017 that would allow offices to remain open in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Milton Keynes, Manchester and Nottingham along with a smaller sub-office in Dublin.
The university added that the plan calls for an expansion of the centers in Milton Keynes, Manchester, and Nottingham.
Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor, said: “This recommendation, if approved, would allow us to enhance student support in a way that’s simply not possible in our current office network, and offer our students the sort of support they expect and deserve.”
A final decision will come from the university’s council in late November.
The OU currently enrolls around 200,000 students, many of whom have jobs and other commitments along with their schoolwork.