The university at school leavers’ fingertips

The modern materials at the disposal of today's Open University students include smart phone apps. Picture: Contributed
The modern materials at the disposal of today's Open University students include smart phone apps. Picture: Contributed
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Open University has thrown off its old-fashioned image and offers flexible learning to young people across Scotland, says Dr James Miller

Lecturers in kipper ties on a grainy black-and-white TV screen might be the image that springs to mind for some when they think of The Open University (OU) – but not for today’s young people.

Over the past five years, the OU in Scotland has seen a 50 per cent increase in young students, suggesting the “university of the air” is appealing to a new generation of young learners in a manner unforeseen by Harold Wilson, when he announced his vision in a Govan shipyard, 50 years ago.

In the past academic year, more than 1,000 students, aged 18-25, chose to study with the Open University in Scotland, with the result that this age group now accounts for over one in ten of all students. With thousands of pupils receiving their SQA results this week, it is worth pausing to reflect on this recent trend. Undoubtedly, a key factor is the current economic environment, which has increased demand and competition for higher education. Against this backdrop, some young people look for alternatives to full-time, campus-based courses, particularly pupils who did not achieve the required standard in their Highers.

A viable alternative

As most OU undergraduate degrees do not require any formal entry qualifications, the university offers a viable alternative for such pupils hoping to embark on a higher education course in a subject of their choice.

Ironically, in the current climate, the much heralded “open access” policy of the university appears just as pertinent to today’s school leavers as it always has been for older people considering a return to education.

A second and more interesting factor underpinning the demand from young people for OU study is evidence of school leavers actively choosing to combine employment in their chosen career with part-time study.

This is a canny decision in a highly competitive job market, particularly for the younger generation. At the end of their studies, these young graduates will have a higher education qualification, several years’ practical work experience, less debt and many graduate qualities beyond those gained by students opting for a campus-based experience.

The Open University has always offered flexibility to enable those in employment to study whenever suits them.

However, while young people may be less averse to staying up all night, advances in technology, such as course materials being accessible through smart phones, have replaced the need to broadcast OU lectures at unearthly hours.

Early research findings suggest that another factor influencing young people’s decision to consider the Open University is that it offers the option to select individual modules, which allows students to build towards a higher education qualification, if desired.

Individual and flexible modules

It appears that studying towards a single module may be an end in itself for some young people, either to move on to another university degree course or for employment purposes.

Last year, in addition to the young students under discussion here, more than 500 S6 pupils at over 100 schools across Scotland studied OU short courses alongside their Highers and Advanced Highers with a similar aim to evidence their commitment to their chosen field to university admissions officers or future employers.

The OU does not offer a traditional campus-based experience to young people but studying at a distance does not mean students have an isolated experience.

OU students, no matter what their age or their background, are supported through their qualifications with individualised tutor arrangements, face-to-face tutorials, online forums and informal and formal study groups established by students themselves.

The method of delivery is distinct from other universities but the overall study experience is highly rated by the students; the OU in Scotland has received the top rating for overall satisfaction in the National Student Survey since the survey’s inception in 2005.

By any standard, that is a remarkable achievement and one that is unsurpassed by any other Scottish, or indeed UK, university.

The very idea of an Open University back in the 1960s was ambitious and visionary. More than 40 years on, the OU has achieved its main ambition of providing a “second chance” for adults wishing to return to education and exceeded all expectations by becoming the largest university in Europe, as well as a global leader on open educational resources.

Perhaps more noteworthy though – particularly for parents, teachers and policy makers – is that it is currently meeting a demand from young people looking for different options to stay one step ahead of the game in an ever more competitive graduate market.

• Dr James Miller is director of The Open University in Scotland

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