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Principal Will Woods – A personal reflection

Live | Learn | Create

Life has been very busy and challenging – In 2017 I joined the Open College of the Arts as Principal and Chief Executive Officer. It’s been a culmination of many years of working in senior roles in Higher Education, mainly at the Open University, that led me to this wonderful organisation. 

What I discovered about OCA (2017)

OCA is an organisation that was in deep financial water by 2016 and had effectively been assisted by the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) who took ownership from 2016 when OCA became a subsidiary, UCA invested in services to support OCA and whilst the vast majority of these services are invisible to OCA students they have helped OCA to remain in operation and to develop. I also discovered that OCA has a wealth of knowledge and expertise, with excellent staff and tutors and engaged students, but this was largely untapped. Finally I discovered that OCA was struggling to manage the transition to new (online) approaches. These are all problems I believed I could fix, so we began a turnaround.

Pre-pandemic

By March 2020 the turnaround was well underway. We had cleared the negative reserves, and we understood our costs and the fees we needed to charge and had discussed these with our student association and Board. We had a clear model for deferring income/revenue to ensure we had adequate funding to teach students for the duration of their course, regardless of the climate on enrolments. We were moving effectively to digital practices, with an eighteen month plan to embed the VLE and digital assessment and we had a clear strategy for curriculum development. We also had very good and tested disaster recovery plans (which would become very valuable shortly). What we hadn’t achieved at this point, despite goodwill on both sides, was any significant collaborative benefits from the merger with UCA.

Pandemic reflections

By the Summer of 2020 we had implemented remote working practice and were managing assessment digitally, establishing eighteen months worth of planned activity in around eighteen days. A huge effort. We were all managing additional enrolments and coping with higher volumes being assessed and a 400% increase in the numbers of student requests for support. These pandemic challenges meant trying to retrospectively scale staff, systems and processes to cope with demand. We know that we didn’t get everything right but we adapted quickly, and learnt. What we were not able to do was to assist UCA to any great extent. We did explore a joint project to manage international students onto OCA courses and then onto UCA courses at a latter stage, however the differences in curriculum, learning outcomes and study mode made this impossible to realise in the few weeks we had until the September intake. OCA did host webinars for colleagues in HE and we reached out to assist any HEI in general terms about facing the challenges to pivot to digital and online learning. We also created free learning resources for parents to assist children in lockdown through weekly creative challenges. We know the Open University did similar work and I was involved in a OU hosted webinar at one point sharing our experiences of online learning.

The pandemic brought both OCA and UCA to a point of reflection. We were at the five year review point of our relationship and our strategic directions continued to be quite divergent. The University for the Creative Arts operates in a space punching up to Russell Group expectations, particularly on research excellence, and on the selection of staff and students to meet that continued ambition. The Open College of the Arts operates with a focus on open access education, learning gain, employability, skills development, on professional practice and around giving opportunity for anyone to gain a career in the creative arts. In additional OCA can be seen as competing in the same (creative arts) space, with different mode of study and fee point. These are all challenges when operating as a group and ultimately when we talked it was clear that the two organisations have different visions for the future and needed to divest to fully realise those ambitions.

So why the OU?

Shared Values – The Open College of the Arts has been pioneering open education in the creative arts for over thirty years. Founded by Michael Young, one of the founders of the Open University, the two organisations share an identity in widening participation. Indeed the OCA was founded by Michael Young when people at the Open University told him that Creative Arts couldn’t be taught at a distance so he went out to prove that it could. What this means is that OCA and OU have a unique shared identity. The OU’s mission is to be Open to people, places, methods and ideas. OCA’s mission is Live, Learn, Create.

Complementary curricula – Indeed there are only two areas of overlap with music and creative writing however in both those areas there is distinction between the offers, for example the OU music degree covers studio practice whereas the OCA music degree is around classical composition.

Geographic benefits – OCA is based in Yorkshire where the OU has no current base. This offers both organisations the opportunity to explore localisation agendas in the North East of England, particular in areas of reskilling and meeting the levelling up agenda. On a wider scale the OU operates across the four UK nations. The OCA has only 3% of students from Wales and a similar percentage from Scotland, so access to regional funding and support for the nations will allow both organisations to bring creative education to a wider UK audience.

Student Support – The Open University can assist OCA in many ways, a world leader in online learning and an understanding of wellbeing and support for distance learning students, with a vibrant and enthusiastic community of students, means that as we grow together the OCA student community will benefit in many ways from the achievements the OU has made in improving student satisfaction and wellbeing. The OU continues to perform well in the National Student Survey and this is something that is extremely important to us as we look to the future.

Future opportunities – In 2025 the government will roll out Lifelong Loan Entitlement – consultation is currently underway on this and, if done correctly, is likely to represent a seismic shift in adult learning. Working together the Open University and Open College of the Arts can meet the challenges and provide amazing opportunities in adult learning. In 2023 the first Craft and Design T Levels will be introduced, and again there is a great potential opportunity for collaboration in the pre-degree space. The Open College of the Arts has started some short course programmes that are proving popular and with the collaboration of the Open University and OpenLearn in particular, these courses can be supersized to reach a global audience at scale and open up further access to the creative arts for a wider audience. Finally the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University and the Open College of the Arts can together form a partnership for bidding and funding opportunities and joint scholarship and research – exploratory activity has already begun and this is a super exciting and rich area of exploration.

And finally

Not everyone will agree with the decisions I’ve taken or even agree with our rationale for choosing the Open University over other providers. We were not able to consult fully with students at all stages of the change process which involved eighty people across three organisations, and this has been unavoidable and has made the work to explain the change now much harder. I am sorry to students that we were not able to do so, however If I had to do this over again I would still have made the same choices. Although there is still much more work to ensure a smooth transfer, I’m very heartened by the positive messages of support from colleagues, tutors, students and even from comments made by public on social media.

By way of explanation, the UCA/OCA graduation in July this year at the Royal Festival Hall was an astounding and awe inspiring event (see image above). I met forty-two OCA graduates from many different backgrounds, cultures, abilities and all ages. The biggest cheer of the whole ceremony when out when OCA graduate 94 year (young) Dorothy Flint came on stage to collect her award. It made my heart swell and I firmly believe it’s why we are all here.

Many younger learners now choose OCA and I both hope and expect to see many more graduates of all ages live, learn, create and celebrate success like Dorothy over the coming years through the collaboration between OCA and the OU.

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Posted by author: Will Woods
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7 thoughts on “Principal Will Woods – A personal reflection

  • I’ll admit to skipping to the end, hoping not to see, ‘and this is why I’ve chosen to step back’. I didn’t. Your style is gentle and thoughtful and with that ethos as the ‘guiding mind’, OCA presents as a warm place to be. I remember thinking that, as an organisation, you stepped up with remarkable speed at the start of the pandemic to change how the course was administered and delivered; I couldn’t see how you had done it but now I can. What an achievement.

  • Well done on a very difficult transition and thank you for being so open about what it worked as well as what was difficult. I look forward to continuing to grow with OCA moving forward.

  • It is really helpful to see your reasoning for this change and to hear what the advantages will be for students in the future.

  • I’m a newly registered student and feel very encouraged by the development of OCA over the past decade and the vision of the leadership team going forward.

  • I interpret this to mean that oca does not come up to UCA high standards regarding research and scholarship and instead is , and intends to remain, and build on, a focus on work, career and pre-degree courses. I joined oca because it is a university. The first role of a university is not to prepare for jobs, but to support critical thinking, and learning about knowledge creation. This is a sad omission in this whole commentary and raises the position of oca in university ranking in the arts. (I understand of course that uni ranking is partly based on the achievements of students pre-entry – and the oca is open – as it should be. Even so, as director I’d expect Will to be fighting to change this rather than buckling to market pressures). With regard to instituted changes to save money – my experience is that my work is not seen in reality by anyone, And I do not see anyone else’s work. I am more isolated than previously, and I am entirely unhappy both about change after change- and the way communicated.

  • Thank you for further explaining much of the complex rational around the decision to move to OU. I have just reached the end of my studies and have seen great changes in courses and organisation since I began with OCA. I have been challenged by, but grown immensely through, the increasingly academic nature of the courses, so I greatly value that change and trust that it will persist. However, I would never have studied for a degree without the open access opportunity which is so central to both the OU and OCA.
    As a student on the Creative Arts pathway, I particularly value cross-curricula contact and opportunities such a study visits open to any student. I see this as a possible area at risk in the process and hope that it receives some thought.
    I wish OCA every success going forward . Thank you for mentioning the wonderful Dorothy, an example to us all and a real privilege to know.

  • Thank you Will for sharing your reflection on change with us. I am on my final lap with OCA and have seen it develop and improve the learning experience especially for overseas students with digital tutor led workshops and talks. Our OCA-Europe group certainly benefitted from this and I do hope the OU will carry on in this fashion.

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