We work across all four nations of the UK to encourage students from disadvantaged areas to engage in higher education, but in each nation the work is tailored to the different contexts and funded differently. In England and Northern Ireland our work is supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The Community Partnerships Programme offers The Open University an opportunity to work collaboratively with organisations based in local communities. We aim to attract students who have no previous higher education qualifications and who live within the 25 per cent most disadvantaged communities (as defined by the government’s index of multiple deprivation).
2010/2011 has been a highly successful year for the Community Partnerships Programme, with a 60 per cent increase in the number of students participating in Open University study through this work. Most significantly, over 55 per cent of the English students recruited through this programme come from England’s most disadvantaged communities, compared with just 16 per cent from these communities in the new undergraduate population in England as a whole.
Our Community Partnerships Managers work closely with local organisations to offer a range of OU courses to learners, encouraging those new to higher education to begin with a course from our Openings Programme (short, introductory, Level 1 courses). Our partners include organisations such as children’s centres, schools, voluntary and community sector organisations, and regeneration organisations.
The students we recruit may be offered some additional support in their local community, for example some organisations facilitate face-to-face study groups by providing a venue for tutorials and/or childcare facilities for parents.
Not only has the programme been successful in encouraging students to study with us, it also helps to build their confidence and skills for further study and employment. Below we give some examples of our work with partners where we have built a support network to encourage and enrich the student experience.
SLP is based in the Toxteth area of Liverpool, which has high rates of unemployment and residents from many different ethnic minorities. Established in 1972, SLP provides employment and training services to the local community and works with people from a variety of backgrounds, who often have few qualifications.
The organisation actively promotes education and training opportunities to its service users. It also promotes these opportunities to its staff, trainees and volunteers, who SLP see as ‘idea advocates’ - using their learning experiences as inspiration and encouragement to others in the local community.
The partnership with SLP was developed in 2009 and is mutually beneficial. The OU is able to offer its courses to local people and SLP is able to offer its clients a progression route into HE. SLP is an enthusiastic partner and through its extensive network in the local area, is able to identify and encourage potential learners to explore the OU offer. SLP refers people to the OU, and host regular information sessions as well as study sessions for students. To date over 140 people have received information and advice from the OU, and over 20% of enquirers have gone on to register for a course.
The programme in Ireland works in partnership with trade unions throughout Northern Ireland to create opportunities for those less likely to engage in workplace learning. In workplaces Union Learning Reps (ULRs) act as advocates for learning and encourage their peers to get back into learning through The Open University.
In Belfast the OU has worked with Sainsbury’s and USDAW, the shop workers union, to create learning opportunities for union members. Whilst Sainsbury’s was committed to providing educational opportunities for employees, it was often difficult to realise this aspiration. The OU’s flexible approach provided a way forward, as workers were enabled to manage their commitment to both the employer and their own learning, and in this work we also supported students by providing face to face tutorials in the workplace.
This support enabled less confident students, who had felt that HE was 'not for them', to engage in learning and succeed. Perhaps most importantly the value of the work has been embraced by the employer, which ensures that it is sustainable and will continue to provide opportunities for workers to realise their potential, and provide benefits for both employer and worker.
Castle Green Children’s Centre and the surrounding schools in Barking and Dagenham have established a partnership with The Open University to provide access to higher education in an area which has one of the lowest participation rates in HE in the country.
Parents attended community outreach events to find out more and, for most, to consider higher education for the first time. Most of those who signed up for a course in 2010/11 were new to higher education and many did not have the standard entry qualifications for university. These students were given additional support, as Castle Green Children’s Centre provided creche facilities, a room and refreshments for the weekly study group, and an Openings tutor delivered five study skills sessions.
Last year's students achieved higher than average completion rates and are using their newly developed confidence to work towards further qualifications. One student has gone on to study a childcare course at their local Further Education college and others are continuing their studies with the OU. They have established a group to work together in between and during modules and many attend the new Openings study group to help out.
Gateway Children’s Centre and ‘The Gateway’ Community Centre are based in the Ravenscliffe estate in North Bradford, one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, where participation in higher education is low.
The Centres work together to provide a range of opportunities to local residents. The Children’s Centre works with parents to offer parenting support and childcare facilities, and the Community Centre provides advice and training and opportunities to volunteer and build employability skills.
The OU in Yorkshire has been working in partnership with both centres for the past three years. The Children’s Centre regularly invites the local OU worker to speak to groups of parents and refers parents to the OU when they are ready to move on in their studies. The Children’s Centre also supports them as they study by providing childcare facilities to enable them to attend sessions.
In a similar way the Community Centre facilitates OU information sessions for groups and hosts taster and drop-in sessions for enquirers and face-to-face support for those undertaking OU study. The partnership with these centres has enabled many local parents to successfully engage with higher education and progress in employment and training.