Why I Resigned From The Open University

What Anti-Mac Attitude?

A year or two before I left, the Open University took on a new top manager. He was good enough to address many of us personally and ask for our advice. I asked him what was going to be done about the pointless problems forced on Mac users. I already knew he’d come straight from Microsoft, but had been recruited on his strengths as an expert in removing unnecessary problems with Distance Learning, now of course largely e-learning.

His response suggested to me that he wasn’t familiar with some of the very basic issues. It actually is a good idea that managers of computer systems are not as fully immersed in computer technicalities as those they manage, as Steve Jobs has shown. But they still have to know enough. He didn’t know that many course designers and managers, including those at the OU at least until recent years, had been spurning the common standards designed to allow computers of all makes to communicate, and had used file types and IT components specific to only one sort of system, commonly thought to be the worst. Those who buy Macs might well share some characteristics with those who learn at the OU. But as Mac users they would be explicitly discouraged from even starting with the OU, and if they pressed on and asked why they were pointlessly excluded from certain courses, they’d find it was assumed that most sensible people used Windows, and only the stupid seek a better experience.

All this anti-Apple attitude might seem surprising in people and organisations supposed to be expert, not just in computers but forward trends or at least possibilities strongly suggested by the styles and qualities of commercial providers. I was sickened that I had to teach the new head-huntee this old lesson, though you can’t blame him for applying for the job, and he did after all seek advice and may have subsequently acted on it for all I know.

Unexplained Discrimination

I’d hoped working part-time at the OU would allow me to avoid the irritating management issues you’d get from other employers, and for the first year or two I was delighted. In fact my immediate bosses, while they were in that role, were perfect. But eventually all this started up:

In the first year I was paid less than £40 for my supposed 3 hours part time work per week, which was seldom anywhere near as low as that. Everyone doing that job did inevitably have other work, possibly full-time, but you could add OU minijobs if you could get them. I started volunteering for marketing days, trying to attract members of the public to the OU. This was fun and profitable, and I think I did it well (no-one ever complained, and I helped get good numbers). But the woman who selected from the volunteers was not any kind of academic, just a very lowly admin bod. It was also clear from her manner that she’d decided within a couple of seconds of meeting me that she didn’t like anything about me. (I do sometimes complain about this sort of thing, but I don’t have that effect on most people! Sometimes quite the opposite. However it is a well understood problem that has been addressed by law.) She did however select me a fair share of the time, until one day she just stopped. No reason ever given, except for the invalid “geography” being given one time. Out shopping one day I came across a bloke doing a marketing day who’d tried to resist, but she’d forced him – even though I’d been rejected.

I went to ‘the rep’ who said he couldn’t do anything until I joined the union. When I joined, he said there wasn’t a problem to be addressed; apparently I didn’t even deserve any explanation. He was also the employees’ rep within the OU. He’d managed to arrange things so that there wasn’t anyone else to complain to about him. I stood against him at the next OU election and by election day his candidature was still not showing on the website. But despite this he was still elected. The result for me was that it made it difficult to survive on OU pay. This is the kind of person who deserves extraordinary measures, even beyond that deserved by the person causing the original problem, and he came close to getting them.

Free Feedback Advice Not Welcome

Another extreme and pointless annoyance was the refusal of my course managers to show the exam papers to the tutors early enough to fix problems. The tutors still saw the papers at the start of the year, but no feedback was possible. This meant that some problems arose in teaching but massive problems appeared at the marking stage. It made huge extra work for the markers, and the managers actually, and huge amounts of pointless confusion for the students. The kind of thing involved might just have been word order or punctuation, or the misleading orientation of two images, or a host of other things. One year they did decide to let the tutors offer their advice, and we helped a lot. But shortly after, it was stopped, even though it was common practice on other courses. Again, no reasons given, apart from the facile gesture of saying they couldn’t afford to pay, even though we’d offered to do it, and done it, for free.

90% Of The Job Is Understanding The Job Description, and BTW, This Maniac Is Your Manager

Another time I taught an extra course on sports science, or rather acted as answerer of questions, and marker. I’d been a national squad member in my sport, and coached it effectively too, and also was pretty good at basic physics and biology (and hopefully at my main subject, psychology. I was the only one able to identify a scientific error in an exam question but you can guess the effect that had!) Once the job started it was very easy, and great, though sorting through the initial job description and instructions was rather hair-raising. I shared the task with another tutor, and one time, after she’d been attacked by cows, I had to answer all the questions on my own for a few days. Shortly after that I had a problem with my internet provider and had to change, forcing me to answer emails at the local library. Unfortunately many arrived outside library hours so my colleague had to answer most that week. She went bonkers. She then made unjustified and unexplained criticisms, and worse still, suddenly announced that she was my manager. To assume that a co-worker was merely a colleague, but then be informed by them that you have actually been working under them is unacceptable – and she was a terrible boss! I could have done both jobs fine on my own. Again, no justification, explanation, apology or anything was ever forthcoming.

This Job’s For Our Friend, But Apply If You Want

One time I answered an invitation to apply to teach my current course to a second simultaneous group. (I’d done that in the past, once to help out a rather irresponsible but much more highly favoured colleague, at short notice.) A telephone interview was arranged, and I waited for the call… After a while I phoned up to see what had happened and realised they’d forgotten all about me. They eventually carried out the interview a little bit after the time they’d arranged, but it was clear they were just going through the motions. I didn’t expect the job, which they’d given to someone who was clearly a friend of theirs. But what I didn’t expect was for them to tell me afterwards that they’d given it to a “much stronger candidate”. Odd that I’d already been doing the job for years with excellent reports by my manager, and if only the favourable feedback from students was considered, I might well be thought to be the best teacher in the world. But the figures showed that on student feeling alone I was at least average, and who knows how good the actual results of my teaching (hard to measure) were. A stronger candidate I can imagine, but a “much stronger candidate” who hadn’t taught the course before and ended up leaving after just one year, was taking the piss. Again, people were very free to indulge their darker side if they thought they’d never get caught out. The basic part of OU teaching was great, but the pay didn’t justify the management insults. Besides, it didn’t matter if I stayed or not since as I couldn’t survive on the pay I’d need to look elsewhere anyway.

I was eventually overcome by the feeling of operating in an unstructured vacuum of others’ whim, that management couldn’t be trusted, indeed could be expected to behave improperly so frequently that the job just couldn’t be done. Also, no complaints were ever heeded, and certainly bad behaviour was never admonished. When I explained all this to the head of the OU, who, you recall, I’d had to tell about one of the most important aspects of the job, I got no reply.

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