Marie Hendry: Having a ‘Day’ to mark equality of opportunity is a goal worth having

Question. What do careers, free learning, university mental health, books, women and apprenticeships have in common?

Of the 40 per cent of Open University in Scotland students who study STEM subjects, 49 per cent are female, a sector-leading figure

Maybe a passing relevance to each other you might think?

Well, each of them happens to have their own national or international celebration dates in the diary this week: Scottish Apprenticeships Week, National Careers Week, Open Education Week, World Book Day, University Mental Health Day and International Women’s Day.

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Of course, here at The Open University in Scotland, we think that these somewhat different days randomly (or otherwise) allocated together in the first week in March have far more in common than their place in a celebratory calendar.

Marie Hendry is Depute Director (External Engagements and Partnerships) at The Open University in Scotland.

That connection – and the thing that’s been getting us at the OU up each day and crossing off our own work calendars for the last 50 years – is a desire that education, skills development and career paths are open and accessible to all. Opportunity for all. Equality of access.

Indeed, the OU is celebrating its own special calendar entry this year. We’re celebrating half a century of opening access to education for all. The first ever mention of the ‘University of the Air’ that was to become The Open University was made by Harold Wilson in Glasgow in 1963 at Green’s Playhouse (which later became the legendary Apollo).

The Open University as we know it today was delivered by Jennie Lee, the Minister for Arts and then for Education – in Wilson’s government – whose tenacity, determination and vision saw her rally against the establishment who were critical and dismissive of the idea of a university that provided access to high quality higher education without the need for previous qualifications and one that required no attendance at a campus to succeed.

Fifty years and two million students worldwide later – 200,000 in Scotland – the OU is also celebrating Open Education Week as a world leader in the field. Our OpenLearn and FutureLearn platforms have seen free open access education extended to millions worldwide. Our partnership with the BBC has seen the OU reach millions through co-produced programmes like Blue Planet II, the most watched natural history programme ever. The programme did what even Kim Kardashian couldn’t and almost broke the internet in China when 80 million people watched it simultaneously!

We’re celebrating the vision of Jennie Lee this week on International Women’s Day, in the Fife mining communities where she was born and raised. But we also celebrate all of the women who access education as a way of enriching their lives, their careers and their future.

We’re proud to support many, many women in their journey and delighted that of those 40 per cent of OU in Scotland students that study Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects, 49 per cent are female. It’s a sector-leading figure, but not one upon which we rest our laurels. We’ve partnered with Equate Scotland to review our curriculum to ensure that it is attractive and relevant for female engineers. We are also supporting women returning to STEM careers through the provision of OU Open Access courses, as part of Equate Scotland’s Women Returners to STEM programme.

74 per cent of the OU in Scotland’s students are in work. 65 per cent of our students study for free through the Part-Time Fee Grant, available to those with an income of £25,000 or less.

Some are studying through a funded Graduate Apprenticeship. We’re incredibly proud of our pedigree providing work-based learning – and now, uniquely, to be an apprenticeships provider in all four nations of the UK. In Scotland our Graduate Apprenticeships in Software Development, Cyber Security, and IT Management for Business enable apprentices to ‘earn and learn’ without ever needing to travel to a campus.

Why is that important? Well, it’s back to that equal opportunity vision – that those who live and work in remote and rural areas can take advantage of skills development opportunities, that those 22 per cent of our students declaring a disability can best take part in education at a time and place that best suits their needs. That the 9 per cent of our 16,500 students who tell us they have a mental health issue can access the assistance and online education that supports them in this University Mental Health week – and the other 51 weeks of the year.

The world is changing. The way we choose to read books, the way we choose to learn, the way we choose to work, the way women lead the way, the way those with mental health issues are supported and our own choice of career paths are all changing, and weeks like this all help to highlight these changes. But we’ve all got a long way to go to ensure that opportunity is truly open to all.

Wouldn’t that be a great day to celebrate?

Marie Hendry is Depute Director (External Engagements and Partnerships) at The Open University in Scotland.