The Open University has a proud reputation for providing distance learning to thousands of people across the UK in a flexible and innovative way. However, its recent decision to close down seven of its regional centres will mean that, for many, learning will become a lot more distant indeed.
The proposals would see the closure of centres in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Gateshead, Leeds, London and Oxford, putting 502 jobs on the line. Only two regional centres would remain, in Manchester and Nottingham, alongside the national offices in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Milton Keynes.
Staff in the local offices offer crucial support for students. They provide course materials, help students with disabilities, arrange tutorial groups, run examination arrangements, advise on study options and manage local degree ceremonies. If the regional centres close, their significant expertise will be lost.
Over 6,400 staff, students and members of the public have signed a petition against the plans. The university’s own academic body, the senate, rejected the proposals to close the regional centres, saying that they were “high risk” and “failed to support the academic mission of the university”. Politicians, too, have raised concerns, with several local MPs calling for the centres to be retained.
The university says it wants to centralise support services for students. But staff fear that closing seven centres at once will lead to chaos, and are clear that sometimes people need face-to-face support in their local area rather than from a call centre many miles away. If the Gateshead centre shuts, the next nearest centre would be a 250-mile round trip away in Edinburgh.
Members of the University and College Union also argue that there’s a big missed opportunity here. Instead of closing these regional centres, the Open University could choose to turn them into vibrant community hubs for student activity as well as for its academic staff, most of whom work remotely.
As students are forced to pay more than ever before for their higher education, it’s imperative that students are well supported. Sadly, these plans will mean that seven cities will be left without the expertise and knowledge currently based there, and support for many students will be significantly farther away.
Lydia Richards is the University and College Union’s regional official covering the Open University
Photo: Open University Campus in Milton Keynes