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Widening access

The Open University widens access to higher education to all people in society. This is a core part of our mission to be ‘open to people, places, methods and ideas’. We do this by engaging with communities, organisations and a range of stakeholders across Northern Ireland. Our work aligns with the Department for the Economy’s ‘Access to Success’ strategy.

Information, Advice and Guidance

Providing information, advice and guidance is important to students who come from widening access backgrounds. This is because these students often face a range of issues, such as difficult personal circumstances, financial hardship, low prior educational attainment, or perhaps low confidence. This can often stop students continuing with their studies. Experienced and qualified advisory staff in The Open University’s Belfast office support students with these issues, including providing information on funding, arranging additional study support sessions, advising on study strategies or providing educational advice on how to continue with their studies.


What have we been doing so far?

Students with additional needs

Two people holding hands

The flexible nature of study and our experience in harnessing enabling technologies to support learning, means that over 23,000 people with a wide range of disabilities and additional needs choose to study with us each year. Services available through the University include alternative versions of module materials, support to attend tutorials, adjustments for examination arrangements and adherence to an advocacy policy for students who may wish to nominate an advocate to liaise with the University on their behalf. Students are also provided with guidance and support on how to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowances. We also work with various disability organisations and carer support groups in Northern Ireland, such as Action on Hearing Loss and Autism NI, to promote the opportunities and services available to students with additional needs.


Young people

A man wearing a backpack looking up in to a clear blue sky

More young people are now choosing to study with The Open University than ever before. This is because our courses are both affordable and flexible, so young people can stay in employment alongside their studies gaining valuable work experience. The Open University recognises that many young people in Northern Ireland who live in areas of multiple deprivation may have missed out on formal education due to a range of challenging circumstances, and which in turn, has had a negative impact on their life chances. The Open University therefore undertakes outreach work with young people and their families and carers. Currently, we offer information sessions and attend careers events in a wide selection of schools in Northern Ireland. We have also established links with high-profile youth organisations such as The Princes Trust to facilitate development opportunities for young people who may not currently be engaged in education.


Care leavers

A woman holding an elderly woman's hand.

The Open University offers young adults from a care background who wish to return to education the opportunity to study at higher education level. The University’s open-entry policy means that young people are not required to go through the UCAS grade-based entry process for a place on a higher education qualification, which can often be a barrier to undertaking study. The Open University also gives advice to learners who may not be ready for degree-level study on how to gain the necessary independent study skills through free, online, preparatory learning and Open University Access Modules.

The Open University is a member of the Regional Pathways Group for looked-after children and young people. Through membership of that group, we contribute to discussion and ideas around best practice for supporting people from a Care background. We also take part in The Fostering Network’s ‘Tick the Box’ event which encourages students who are care leavers to talk to University staff about their personal circumstances, in order to be fully informed about their support and funding options available to them.


Students in secure environments

A laptop with e-learning written across the middle of the screen

Since the 1970s, The Open University’s Students in Secure Environments programme has grown to include over 150 prisons and 50 Secure Hospital Units. The University provides a tailor-made curriculum for learners studying in a secure environment.

In Northern Ireland we work closely with the Northern Ireland Prison Service to deliver distance-learning at higher education level to students in all of the secure environments in Northern Ireland. This includes ongoing collaborative work with key liaison staff in the prison and within the Northern Ireland Prison Service. We provide information sessions each academic year to people in prisons about study.


Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups (BAME)

A series of multicoloured cardboard cut outs holding hands

The Student Support Team in Belfast provides information, advice and guidance to people from black, Asian, minority and ethnic backgrounds; including advice and information on funding and residency status. We also promote opportunities to study to a wide range of community organisations. 

The Open University also introduced an Open Futures Bursaries for Black and Minority Ethnic Students in 20/21. Students can access information on this bursary via StudentHome or their Student Support Team in Belfast.


Trade Unions

A series of people at a desk looking over papers.

The Open University launched a formal partnership with the Northern Ireland Council of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) in June 2016. This partnership is designed to widen participation in higher education within the workforce across Northern Ireland with a specific focus on progression pathways from essential skills through access provision and into higher education. The Open University contributes to the regular training of new Union Learning Representatives from the various trade union bodies operating in Northern Ireland to address skills gaps and career progression for adults in the workplace.

The Financial Services Union, formerly the Irish Banking Officials Association Union, continues to progress members through Access Modules and onto degree level qualifications with an additional offer of a bursary of £700 towards study costs. The University presents an Open University Union Learner of the Year Award at the Union Learning Conference each year to learners who have overcome significant challenges in order to pursue education.


The Community Partnerships Project

A series of people arms outstretched into the sky

The Open University runs a bespoke partnership programme with a number of women’s centres in Northern Ireland. The pilot programme started in 2012 with Falls Women’s Centre in West Belfast and has developed into a long-term collaborative partnership, resulting in a group of women undertaking study each year.