Education opens up opportunities, providing moments that give people the chance to see what they can achieve. But in practice, there are barriers and complications – and that ‘open door’ to higher education closes on people for many different reasons, shutting out opportunities that could lead to better lives and a better society.

University campuses still have a reputation as being more of a home to those from particular social backgrounds — or, at least, meant more for younger students. Finances are the obvious issue. The cost-of-living crisis and a changing economic context is making a difference to conversations and decisions around university options. The latest UCAS figures show a decline in the number of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds taking up places. And not everyone has the chance to study locally; it depends where you live. If someone is already in work and reliant on an income, becoming a student to develop skills or move in a new career direction can look impossible. And if you’ve had problems in the past, ended up in a dead-end job, or even in prison, then HE might never be thought of at all.

Making a difference

This is the great challenge for HE; how it keeps up and extends its social role. Not just in delivering education services for the best qualified (both financially and because of their past attainment), but pro-actively, as a force for social mobility and equality. We need to keep that door open as much as possible for everyone – because HE makes a difference; Sutton Trust research has found that 22% of graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds are in the top quintile for earnings by the age of 30, compared with 6% of those who didnt go to university.

That highlights the need for constant evolution in HE: to keep ensuring there’s access for all, that offerings stay rooted in the realities of what people want and need from education throughout their lives (not just when they’re making choices at school); and in the skills actually needed by employers. There’s no ‘job for life’ anymore. And, consequently, not one burst of education for life either.

Disrupting the system

The Open University was set up to disrupt the traditional HE system — and Michael Young’s ideas were a hugely valuable model and motivation, through his research into the impact of education on communities, and through his role in setting up the National Extension College.

That mission and sense of purpose is still with us. Rather than a monolithic institution with a possessive claim over its products, we see ourselves as being like a ‘National Grid of Learning’; an open supplier that enables access to HE for more of society, working across all four nations of the UK.

Opening access

Through our work on ‘cold spots’, for example, the OU partners with FE colleges to help them extend their higher technical skills offer, building a network that includes colleges in Cumbria, Dorset, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Somerset.This increases the availability of HE provision. 

Taking part in higher study has been shown to reduce the likelihood of re-offending. The OU is the biggest provider of HE to prisons and secure units, working with more than 1,000 inmates at any one time across 150 institutions.

And while access to university labs, equipment and data still tends to be restricted, our award-winning online OpenSTEM Labs make it possible to engage in high-level research from anywhere. Some 104,000 registered users tap into interactive instruments – such as remotely-operated telescopes in Tenerife, engineering rigs and robotic devices, remote access experiments, and virtual scenarios using real data.

A community approach

Building on Young’s belief in the value of community-based research, HE also needs to demonstrate how research is used to deal with localised, immediate issues and help deliver practical change. The OU’s Open Societal Challenges programme includes work on community food projects; new thinking supporting young people to be politically-engaged citizens; and setting up a Learning Disability Hub to encourage sharing of stories and experiences and support people with learning disabilities to work in the archive and carry out their own research.

Creativity encourages us all to embrace lifelong learning, the value of up-skilling and re-skilling, where a new partnership is formed between employers, governments and individuals. Since 2019, the OU has partnered with Uber on a scheme that allows drivers and their family members to access fully-funded HE, fitting shifts of work around degree studies. The University’s Open Learn platform was used by almost 900,000 people last year to access free online courses, creating a bridge to make more adults feel confident about learning new skills and considering higher education study.

Innovation for the future

The OU continues to be a disruptor, always looking to embrace the possibilities of technology for all rather than seeing it as a threat — and that includes AI, as we are now developing and trialling AI systems that allow every student to have personalised, one-to-one tuition: a digital assistant that complements a human tutor by being contactable in the evenings and weekends, whos constantly clued up on their particular progress (based around machine learning and evidence from the individual’s behaviours and those of millions of other students), and giving support around what they need to do to perform better.

In other words, the kind of innovation in HE that works towards more equality. That aims to push open more doors. And that delivers opportunity, everywhere.

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash


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