It’s easy to be a bit cynical about ‘days’. Not Thursdays, or Mondays (actually, maybe Mondays), but days that are marked for the celebration or promotion of particular things or ideas. Valentine’s Day, just last week, provokes all sorts of reactions. But what about Talk Like a Pirate day (19 September) or Take Your Houseplant for a Walk day (27 July)?
Maybe it’s because this year marks the 50th anniversary of my institution, The Open University, and I’m therefore in a celebratory mood, but I do think there can be some value in at least some of these days. They can provide niche interests or causes with a bit of much-needed profile, or they can offer us a chance to step back and reflect on important ideas. One of these, I’d say, is World Day of Social Justice – which is today.
While Talk Like a Pirate day (apparently) emerged from two guys talking like pirates during a game of racquetball in the sixties, World Day of Social Justice stems from an International Labour Organisation (ILO) declaration in 2008, which highlighted the importance of what it called ‘decent work’ – productive work that attracts a fair income in a secure workplace, with opportunities for development and to organise and participate in workplace decisions.
The ILO view is that decent work is at the heart of achieving social justice, which is more or less the idea that people should have fair access to opportunities and resources.
That, to me, is definitely something worth marking, not least because it’s precisely why The Open University exists. In 1969, we were given a Royal Charter which went far beyond the usual instruction to universities to promote learning and knowledge. Rather, it instructed us to “promote the educational well-being of the community generally” – that is, to give everyone the chance to learn.
This is important because learning – education – is central to social justice. Education and skills give us the ability to take advantage of opportunities and to change our circumstances, to demand and enter into ‘decent work’.
That logic underpinned the creation of the OU, a university that would be open to all, all of the time – not some, some of the time. No entrance qualifications needed, just the enthusiasm to learn and the desire to achieve your potential. That simple idea is still radical today, 200,000 Scottish students and 50 years later.
But 50 years has allowed us to develop some skills and experience of our own: how to teach students who are already in work (as three-quarters of our Scottish students are), how to support students with disabilities (more than a fifth of ours), and how to reach every part of Scotland (with 16,500 students spread all over the country).
As we enter the so-called fourth industrial revolution – characterised by technologically-driven disruption, as old jobs vanish and new ones are created – the need for accessible skills and learning has never been greater. If new jobs are to be decent work and, just as importantly, accessible to a wide variety of people, we need to make sure that we all have the skills to adapt.
This is why access to higher education is so important, and is rightly a priority acknowledged across the political spectrum. Everyone who wants to learn and has the potential to succeed should have the opportunity to do so. Crucially, that doesn’t just mean young people leaving school and heading straight to university to study full-time for four years. It really means everyone, of all ages and from all backgrounds. We need to find the means and the will to support all kinds of learner journeys, not just traditional routes.
If we can do that, we’ll have made tangible progress towards not just decent work, but social justice across Scotland. That really will be something to celebrate.
Susan Stewart is director of The Open University in Scotland.