Comment: Part-time study brings world of benefits

PART-TIME study can make a whole world of a difference to students’ prospects and to the economy, writes Peter Horrocks

Part-time study can be beneficial to students and the wider economy, argues Peter Horrocks. Picture: PA
Part-time study can be beneficial to students and the wider economy, argues Peter Horrocks. Picture: PA

What price part-time study? Priceless, I say. Part-time students are the unsung heroes of higher education, studying while they work and contributing to the economy, juggling caring responsibilities or coping with illness while managing their text books.

A quick calculation and you can soon see the benefits of ensuring such dedicated students can realise their potential.

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Sound a bit overblown? Well, I make no excuses because sometimes it takes a big event, such as the general election, to help focus the mind on what’s really important.

It’s only been a matter of weeks since I became vice-chancellor of the Open University (OU), but already I am aware of the responsibility I bear leading one of the largest and finest educational institutions in the UK and a global leader in flexible distance learning.

This role is quite a change from the 30 years and more I enjoyed at another of the UK’s great treasures, the BBC, where I was latterly director of the World Service. Fortunately, here at the OU I got to enjoy the best possible induction – a seat at our recent degree ceremony in Edinburgh. If you’ve ever been to one of our graduations you’ll know they are high on emotion – and for good reason.

Edinburgh’s ceremony saw 250 happy students collecting their awards. Among them were mother and son, Ann and Steve Jones, aged 79 and 53 respectively. Steve has experienced poor health for some years – including suffering a recent heart attack – yet succeeded in completing his degree a few months ago. When he came to register for the ceremony, he discovered that despite completing her degree in 1981, his mother never attended her graduation. Some light persuasion (and a couple of boxes of chocolates) later, the pair took their places among our many inspiring and hard-working graduates.

Such stories are far from uncommon at the OU, and are at the heart of our mission – to be truly open. We combine this mission with innovative and new ways of learning; delivering that learning comprehensively and efficiently in a digitally-changing world and, most of all, an openness to people, to widening access into higher education. This is a mission I am pleased to see shared by the Scottish Government.

Widening access to education is crucial – it’s not just part of the OU’s “manifesto”, it is the very basis on which we were founded and we are fortunate that in Scotland priority is being given, including through the new Commission on Widening Access, to supporting that mission.

The OU can bring its expertise in this area to strengthen the efforts in supporting learners who may be combining study with work, with disabilities, caring responsibilities or coping with study in rural or remote locations. It’s our business and it matters to us.

With almost 200,000 students, the Open University is the UK’s largest educational establishment and holds an important key to the future prosperity of our nations. Research commissioned last year showed that the lifetime earning potential of Scottish OU students without traditional university entry requirements can rise by as much as £103,000. It also told us that the OU significantly widens the net in terms of who participates in higher education in the UK. Crucially, it also revealed that the OU delivers more than £236 million to the Scottish economy every year.

This is about the wider and significant economic and social benefits of part-time study, not just about the benefit to the OU. It’s about the many would-be students who have yet to unlock their potential through part-time study.

Part-time study is too valuable and the challenges it faces simply too important to ignore, for our current and prospective students.

When I led the World Service, I am pleased to say that I enjoyed strong support from many who saw and understood its benefits across society. Now, in taking up the reins at another of the UK’s most inspiring and innovative institutions, I hope the OU will continue to enjoy such support, particularly here in Scotland.

Across Scotland and the UK there are hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from part-time study, many experiencing a massive difference in their lives. We owe it to these individuals, to the next generation, the UK economy and society as a whole to sustain that part-time opportunity. As we operate amidst a new and different political landscape, that is one commitment which I don’t expect to change.

• Peter Horrocks is vice-chancellor of the Open University