The UCU (University and College Union) recently commissioned a report, Universities at risk. The impact of cuts in higher education spending on local economies, which concluded that across England, 49 universities were at risk of closure and that, of all the pre-92 universities, the OU is most at risk. It features in the list of 22 HEIs at ‘high medium’ level of potential impact from the proposals made in the Browne Review (2010), Securing a sustainable future for higher education. This means that the OU has at least eight of the maximum of 12 ‘risk’ points. A recent survey of university leaders revealed that nine out of ten expect an institution to close due to financial pressures. The OU has faced the possibility of closure before. In the past it rallied students and staff to defend it.
It survived the threat in 1970-1971 when, according to the Daily Telegraph 31 August 1971, the OU was deemed ‘grossly expensive’ and there was parliamentary pressure (from the Conservative majority) for it to be closed. At that time the Minister at the Department of Education and Science was Margaret Thatcher.
In 1980 the OU had to cut expenditure by £3.5 million, nine per cent of its 1979 expenditure and the government effectively imposed a 46 per cent increase in the undergraduate tuition fee.
In December 1983 the government announced the grant for 1984 and likely funding for 1985 and 1986. This was an expenditure reduction of £13.2 million by 1986 (compared to the 1983 figures). The 1983 base was of an income £68.1million, including a DES grant of £55m. Expenditure ran at £ 68.7m. The Vice Chancellor, John Horlock, wrote to Sir Keith Joseph, the Minister responsible, who, in his response, 18 January 1984, referred to the government’s ‘determination to contain public expenditure’. He had recently created a Visiting Committee to review the progress of the OU and he hoped to receive advice from that quarter. The Minister concluded that while ‘support is not lacking… nevertheless, continued restraint in public expenditure is necessary and the OU as a substantial consumer of such expenditure, must play its part in the process’.
A committee consisting of students, academic and administrative staff was formed to defend the OU. It included Professor Mike Pentz, the Dean of Science, and David Grugeon, the Pro-Vice Chancellor, Students. It was made clear by the External Relations Steering Group that
the basic thrust of the campaign is not in essence political. It does not involve any fundamental conflict with government policy; rather it is informative and intended to alert people in positions of influence to the University if the indicative allocations for 1985 and 1986 are confirmed.
It was also decided that
the tone of the campaign should be appropriate to the nature of the institution i.e. it should be firm and persuasive rather than shrill. While the campaign needs to be professionally mounted and effective, it should not involve any expenditure of the University’s grant monies.
There was support from 13 peers in a debate in the House of Lords on 14 March and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy paid tribute to the value of the OU but the main emphasis of the campaign was on contact with backbench MPs and letters and articles in the press. David Grugeon’s speech on this matter was televised as was a Q&A session at the OUSA conference, much of which was taken up with this matter. There was a stall at the annual Open Day, 25 May 1984 and the video of the speech by David Grugeon was shown throughout the day.
Many students wrote directly to the Department of Education and Science, so that the Minister, Sir Keith Joseph, was aware of the interest in the subject. Bob Masterton provided data which suggested that in many parliamentary seats the number of OU students was greater than the majority that the MP had. Representation was made to all the party conferences. A series of Briefing Notes and a Pocket Guide to OU figures were produced as was a booklet, ‘An Open And Shut Case’ . By August 1984 over 1,000 representations had been made to the DES and over 100 parliamentary questions had been asked about the OU as many students and staff lobbied and wrote. This was more than any other single education issue. There was considerable local and national press coverage, much of it supportive and including a leader in The Times.