The Open University’s unique learning has never been more relevant - Susan Stewart

Tomorrow (April 23) is the date in 1969 that The Open University (OU) was established by Royal Charter. Since then the OU has pioneered online learning, delivered exceptional teaching and helped 200,000 people across Scotland to develop their knowledge, acquire new skills and learn from anywhere.

Susan Stewart is Director of The Open University in Scotland.
Susan Stewart is Director of The Open University in Scotland.

Over this last year the OU’s unique and globally recognised model of supported distance learning has come into its own as we have all adapted to a changing world with the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe that is because our ambition at the OU stands the test of time. We set out to give anyone, anywhere the power to learn regardless of qualifications, age or background.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my role as Director for The Open University in Scotland is seeing people overcoming adversity and gaining empowerment through studying with us. We currently have over 20,000 students based in every Scottish parliamentary constituency from the Shetland Isles to Dumfries and Galloway. In 2019/20, 72 per cent of our new undergraduates earned less than £25,000 and 39 per cent live in Scotland's 40 per cent most disadvantaged areas. Almost a quarter declared a disability.

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One of our 2020 graduates Clydebank based Carla Belkevitz is a very strong example of a student who succeeded against the odds. Carla, in her own words, was ‘kicked out at 14 and went off the rails’. A single mum who left school at 16, she was made redundant several times and juggled studying with raising a family. Now having gained her OU Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Open Degree at age 41, she is studying an OU Postgraduate Diploma in Global Development to support her ambition to teach refugees. Her story is one example of the difference higher education can make. She told us recently, “Along came The Open University, they opened their doors and gave me the chance. I cannot explain the sense of achievement I feel and the value of proving to my kids that you can achieve anything.”

Carla Belkevitz gained her OU Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Open Degree at age 41 and is studying an OU Postgraduate Diploma in Global Development to support her ambition to teach refugees.

Carla’s story was central to our prospectus for the new Scottish Parliament, Skills+Scotland, which we published last month. In that report, we highlighted that a transformed focus on learning, reskilling and upskilling, is vital as the nation recovers.

More agile higher education provision, open to people at all stages of life, delivered flexibly and with shorter courses and modules focused on the skills we need are an essential component of this.

We need to recognise that people enter higher education at different stages of their lives and that they balance work with study, caring responsibilities, or other commitments. A flexible higher education system supporting skills development will ensure that all of Scotland's citizens can play a valued and valuable part in Scotland's recovery.

The OU has a strong role to help deliver this. Our distance learning model provides higher education at a national level yet supports local needs; 85 per cent of our graduates remain in the location where their study was undertaken, retaining their talent and skills in those communities. Over three quarters of our students combine work and study continuing to earn and contribute to the economy while learning. We have already been agile and responsive to the pandemic by offering skills support to those affected by furlough, redundancy, or sector transformation. And we are delivering through partnership with agencies like the Scottish Funding Council, Skills Development Scotland and Partnership Action for Continuing Employment.

As well offering targeted short courses to help upskill and reskill individuals and businesses, we have experienced unprecedented interest in accessing our free learning platforms and notable growth in those studying formal degrees with us as people look to reposition for work in a future economy.

As the nation starts to recover from the pandemic, the OU is strongly positioned to contribute. Founded over 50 years ago, our unique learning is never more relevant.

Susan Stewart is Director of The Open University in Scotland

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