The OU was established over 50 years ago with a mission to open up access to high-quality education for everyone regardless of background or qualifications. It became a route to education for many looking to develop their skills, and a solution for an economy that required to develop and utilise the skills of the whole population, no matter their circumstances. Since then, over 200,000 people have studied with the OU in Scotland and we have helped many people improve their career prospects. That society-wide, civic approach is the beating heart of what we do at the OU and as we face an uncertain future, this has never been needed more.
That’s why, drawing on the OU’s expertise in online learning and its vast range of skills-based resources, we have been taking a rapid, responsive approach during the pandemic, working in partnership with a number of companies, agencies and government to help minimise the impact for workers and businesses.
The Scottish Chambers of Commerce cite that 65 per cent of Scottish businesses have used the UK Government’s jobs retention scheme with 628,200 jobs in Scotland furloughed. As lockdown eases, we are now starting to see the impact of redundancies. Our partners in Skills Development Scotland and Partnership Action for Continuing Employment highlight record low turnover, poor business confidence and particular impacts for the leisure and hospitality, retail, manufacturing and rural industries. Workers with no qualifications are over twice as likely to work in these hardest-hit sectors than those with a degree level qualification.
We’ve moved quickly to respond providing practical and accessible opportunities to furloughed workers and those facing redundancy.
With support from the Scottish Funding Council’s Upskilling Fund, we announced last month a range of funded 30 credit modules in areas which address Scottish skills gaps such as IT, maths and engineering and provide opportunities for those in uncertain employment to reskill for the future. Applicants don’t need previous qualifications and they receive full funding with applications open until 24 July.
During the pandemic, we have seen a particular demand for digital, coding and business courses reflecting the skills gaps identified in Scotland’s Future Skills Action Plan and the OU’s own Business Barometer which tracks employer trends UK-wide. We’ve also seen demand for teachers and educators looking to take their learning online.
Working with the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland we developed a dedicated route to access our 1000+ free online ‘OPenLearn courses for furloughed workers through myworldofwork.co.uk
For employers who are making or facing large scale redundancies, we are offering dedicated support to their workers, advice and guidance on course choices and access to free accredited OpenLearn courses that signpost their skills to employers.
A new range of short, skills-based modules or microcredentials which enable workers to reskill and upskill has also been launched. On these, we’re working with major international partners to offer real business insights, industry accreditation and certification in subjects which include digital skills, coding, business, health and social care, and management.
Across the board, workers themselves are investing in ever-green capabilities that will help them retain value to their employers in the long-term. A recent OU poll of UK employees highlighted that the majority of those who have taken on additional learning opportunities during lockdown have focused on developing managerial skills (51 per cent), while 23 per cent have prioritised digital skills such as learning how to use new software. This is evidenced by a significant take-up of the OU’s free, informal learning resources by people who want to develop their skills during lockdown. The number of unique visitors to our OpenLearn website doubled over the lockdown period, with more than 1 million course enrolments.
The Scottish Government’s Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board launched an advisory report earlier this month flagging the need to maximise the flexibility of colleges and universities to offer short courses so people can learn critical skills needed by employers and to provide more upskilling or reskilling support to employees to support retention.
This is a vision The OU in Scotland wholeheartedly supports and is actively delivering on. As the economy gradually restarts, we continue to work hard at finding new ways to support businesses and workers on the road to recovery.
Marie Hendry is depute director (external engagement and partnerships) at The Open University in Scotland