I inhabit the borderland between science, education and storytelling. Most of the time, these companions are well-behaved and don’t poke sticks at each other. The last few weeks though, they have collided as I watched my university become a protagonist in its own drama.
If you are UK-based, it is hard to have missed the furore surrounding the Open University – its leadership issues, the effects of a damaging political climate that has become less and less supportive of education as an equal and open right for all individuals, regardless of background, current circumstances or challenges to be overcome. We live now in a political climate where it is fashionable to lay claim to support of equality and opportunity, but where it is acceptable to ignore the reality of the requirements for equity. There have been many eloquent explorations of this and of the challenges that the funding climate raises for the Open University, an organisation dedicated to providing educational opportunity for all. It’s not my intention to add to those here. Instead, I want to delve into the story and the reasons why, in two short weeks, the Open University became a cause to rally behind and a unifying symbol, bringing together diverse individuals across ages, political allegiances, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality and race. Many of us already understood the potential for it to become this and indeed, our outgoing VC fought valiantly for recognition of the issues facing part-time learners and the organisations that teach them in a funding climate that is increasingly putting the weight of that on the students themselves. So why is it only now that the wave of momentum crested and broke nationally? I think the answer to that lies in the art of storytelling.
Writers know that to capture your reader, you need not only a great plot, but a relatable cast of characters that inspire loyalty, hatred, love. Characters that the reader is invested in. As authors, we take these characters and do dreadful things to them. We give them great highs, and diabolical lows. We challenge them with circumstance and write them out of it. We bring them alive and they walk from the pages of the book into the minds of our readers, fully formed and ready to do battle. If you doubt for a moment that characters on a page can inspire great emotion and intense loyalty in their readers, look no further than some of the intense debates that rage over readers’ favourites in some of the intense fandoms on the web. Personally, I have a degree of mistrust for anyone who is unable to instantly recall which Hogwarts house they are in … and no-one trusts a Slytherin. What then does this have to do with the Open University and the issues that have hit the public arena over the last few weeks? Come with me on a journey into one of the greatest stories of recent years.
OU VCs have made the public case for the challenges it faces for many years. It’s not just restricted to our outgoing VC, Peter Horrocks, although he did campaign tirelessly in Westminster in support of the part-time learners’ agenda. There was something missing in the cauldron though – there was bubbling, toiling and troubling but the potion was never quite right. People didn’t know it but what they were really waiting for was a captivating story. It’s fair to say that politicians listen. They suffer from convenient selective deafness though, if public opinion doesn’t drive them to also hear and act. Here begins the greatest underdog story of recent years, with a cast of characters worthy of the chunkiest of NY Times bestsellers.
Everyone loves an underdog story. Enter the staff of the Open University. Embattled. Under threat. Fighting for a greater cause than simply their own jobs. In an era where society is looking for reasons to criticise the high earners and to shake the status quo, they were given a character full of attributes we all yearn for. Loyal. Courageous. Potentially selfless. The staff were a collective Gryffindor, forgiven for their impetuousness because it was clear that the fight came from a collective passion for something great, and that it was in defence of those that needed fighting for.
For there to be an underdog, there has to be a villain. The power at the university lay with someone who became a true literary nemesis for the valiant heroes fighting their cause. The heroes of this story faced him in battle, and against the odds, came out standing. As with all villains, it served the writer’s purpose to make them on one level complex and believable, but on another to emphasise key traits that make them easy to dislike. We want our readers to be invested in their downfall.
The Supporting Characters
OU students became a fully realised supporting character in this battle. They gave the hero a chance to protect them, and they themselves had a narrative voice in this story.
This one was a page-turner. The world-building was exemplary. Our villain, after first attacking our hero, then waged a military campaign to ensure that he retained his position in the world of academia. Together, these characters faced down the illusive ‘Council’. A secret organisation where decisions happened behind closed doors. The valiant Senate, propped up by Faculties and Schools, provided a welcome contrast – filled with familiar faces and people the hero understood. Nonetheless, the fight was hard and culminated in the ultimate denouement – the university Council met to seal the villain’s fate. In the end, the hero won through and lived to fight again in the next book in the series. The villain retreated, but the writer didn’t kill him off. After all, who knows what will happen in the sequel.
In reality, there are no heroes and villains. In fact, we are all a little bit of both. But that doesn’t make such a compelling story. The reason the issues our University faces are now reaching the politicians in a way that means they can’t ignore them is because there’s been a perfect storm of public support, cross-party support, news media support (across the news spectrum) and support from the rich and the famous. Politicians are suckers for things that they think will affect their re-election chances. Our VC was right when he campaigned for part-time learners in Westminster. So were his predecessors. I think, though, that the ultimate irony lies in the fact that for the politicians to really take note of what has been said, he needed to become the villain in this piece not the hero. In taking up that role (and we can argue about how much characters in any story are in charge of their own narrative arc), he enabled the Open University to become the hero in a story that has captured the imagination of a nation.
The Open University is looking forwards now. For the first time in a long while, I think it is doing it in a unified way and with a sense of excitement about the challenges we have to face. Whether intentional or unintentional, that’s a direct consequence of the events of the last few weeks. There are many intelligent pieces on the web already addressing what the university needs to move on from here, both from management and from the institution itself. I would like to add my own request to that list. I think that we need leaders and individuals who understand the story and who understand the craft of reaching our audience. We need people who can maintain the momentum that has been gained, not without casualties along the way.
We don’t simply need visionaries, we need storytellers. If we have them, then I can look forward with hope that the university’s tale will be woven into the fabric of our nation for generations to come.