The incoming Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, Peter Horrocks, has used his first address since his appointment to make a direct appeal to politicians to tackle a decline in the number of people studying part time.
Mr Horrocks, formerly the Director of the BBC World Service, joined The Open University at the beginning of April and formally takes on the role of Vice-Chancellor on 5th May.
Mr Horrocks told staff and invited guests that he had “fallen head over heels for the OU” and thanked colleagues for the warm welcome he had received from all quarters since his arrival – whether from senior colleagues, when parking his bicycle in the bike sheds or visiting the security lodge on his first day. He even revealed he had recently dropped in to see the chess club.
Mr Horrocks said the highlight of his first few weeks had been his visit to Dublin to attend the degree ceremony, describing it as “deftly and movingly produced.” In particular, Mr Horrocks described his meeting with one particular student who succeeded with her studies thanks to the support she received from the OU following her diagnosis with dyslexia. She also told him how many other of her family members had subsequently been diagnosed, meaning they could also receive special support to help them achieve their potential.
However Mr Horrocks went on to say part-time education is facing “severe challenges,” pointing particularly to the situation in England since various reforms to the way universities are funded came into effect over the last decade. To illustrate this point, Mr Horrocks drew on figures which showed that 370,000 people embarked on a part-time undergraduate degree last year, compared to 580,000 five years ago – a drop of 37%. He went on to describe the “loss of these 200,000 life opportunities” as “a tragedy”, not just for the individuals and their families, but for the wider society and economy.
Mr Horrocks cited research commissioned last year which showed that the lifetime earning potential of OU students can increase by up to £105,000 for those without traditional entry requirements. It also shows the OU significantly widens the net in terms of who participates in UK higher education, as well as delivering more than £3 billion to the UK economy every year.
In a direct appeal for support, Mr Horrocks called on OU staff, students and alumni to join him and “help fight for part time education.” He went on to promise to “work with all the allies we can find to create a wave of support for part-time and a determination to fix the problem.” He described recent support expressed by politicians for part-time and distance education as “heartening” but said “now we need to put part-time front and centre of the new UK government’s HE agenda in order to harness the potential of all those thousands of people ready to grasp the opportunities that part-time study can provide.”
Mr Horrocks used the closing stages of his speech to set out what he sees as the benefits of working in partnership, saying it “makes us more adaptable, makes us more able to bring solutions to problems.” He also described the potential for partnerships to help attract students, saying “it strengthens our position in a competitive market place, acting as a spur to innovate and adapt to the changing demands of the sector.”
Drawing on a range of examples to highlight successful partnership working, Mr Horrocks cited previous collaboration between the OU and the NHS, along with the university’s English in Action programme, which is giving 25 million Bangladeshis the English language skills they need to succeed. He also emphasised the success of FutureLearn, which has seen more than 2.5m courses taken in 190 countries around the world since 2013. In particular, Mr Horrocks cited a short course on Ebola which has been taken by workers from Médecins Sans Frontières who are on the front line against the disease in Sierra Leone.
Accuracy and fairness
Mr Horrocks concluded by drawing comparisons between his new role and his previous career in journalism, saying he would continue to be guided by the same “personal imperatives”, including being accurate and fair, respecting everyone and “telling it as it is.” He also revealed he intended to run or cycle to work as much as possible.
He then told colleagues he’d be interested to hear any other suggestions for such principles, saying it was important to be “One Open University”.