THIS article is about students in Scotland in 2014. I suspect in your mind’s eye you are thinking of young people, perhaps 18-21, studying on a campus.
However, in the week that the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) is holding its annual congress in Dundee, it is worth highlighting that nearly four out of ten students in Scotland are part-time and likely to be in employment. Adult learning makes a huge contribution to Scottish society and culture, to the health and well-being of individuals, and to the skills and aptitudes of those in work.
For more than 40 years, the Open University (OU) has provided opportunities for individuals to access higher education while continuing in employment. The majority of our students are in work, full and part-time, in the public and private sectors and in locations across the whole of Scotland. We know that our students value the support and encouragement of their colleagues and employers. Around 12 per cent receive some financial sponsorship from their employers but many more tell us they are hugely encouraged when they receive respect and recognition for their studies from workmates or their employer.
Students sometimes tell us they are in an “OU workplace”. This isn’t necessarily anything formal but simply a recognition of the importance of sympathetic colleagues, who may also be students, and know what it’s like to leave work, fulfil your domestic commitments and then get that reading done.
Of course the OU in Scotland and its students and staff are just part of a rich tapestry of adult learning. Much of it goes unheralded and rarely makes the headlines or features prominently in public debate.
Scottish Union Learning is part of the STUC and works with affiliated unions to support their members in accessing skills and lifelong learning opportunities.
Critical to this work are more than 2,000 trained Union Learning representatives in workplaces across the country whose role is to support their workmates in accessing learning opportunities. This activity, which is supported by the Scottish Government and European Social Fund through the Learning and Development Funds, involved more than 10,000 learners in the last year.
With a shared understanding of the importance of workplace support, the OU in Scotland and Scottish Union Learning signed a formal partnership agreement in June 2007. Since then we have worked together to find ways to extend learning pathways from everyday skills into higher education.
We have always known that our students study in social contexts, bringing ideas and lived experience to their study. We know that peer support and communication is valuable and we facilitate this as much as possible.
Our partnership activity has grown year on year. At its core is the design of collective learning opportunities in the workplace. Nine major unions have participated, involving shop floor workers in engineering, posties, care workers, shop floor workers in the food and drink sector, footballers, prison officers and many more. In some cases, students are studying modules that are directly related to their employment. So, for example, in engineering, students with high levels of practical and work-based skills are able to access theoretical skills and concepts. Even though most of the participating students have limited or no formal qualifications, levels of retention and success for these groups are well above the norm for part-time learners. The key to success seems to be good partnership working between the university and Union Learning Representatives, a strong sense of collective identity among the students, high quality materials and support systems from the university, and strong peer support and interaction.
Other students begin their studies with modules that are much less obviously employment related. The dynamics of successful groups are the same, however, and systematic evaluation shows strong levels of personal satisfaction from the participants, and significant development of confidence, motivation and the “soft” skills that are very relevant to employment.
We live in a rapidly changing world. Free and high quality online resources, together with innovative practice and partnerships, have the potential to reshape the boundaries between higher education and the rest of society so that access to higher education throughout the lifecourse becomes possible. The Open University/Scottish Union Learning partnership provides a glimpse of what that future might look like.
• Dr Pete Cannell is depute director of the Open University in Scotland