Director of the OU in Wales Louise Casella discusses the impact the coronavirus has had on us, and looks at what it might mean for the future of university education in Wales.
In March of this year, I spoke at 'Brave New Wales', an event we organised with the Institute of Welsh Affairs, where we looked at the challenges and opportunities for lifelong learning over the next 50 years.
Little did I know, only 10 weeks later, that we would now be facing many of those very challenges.
The past weeks have been enormously difficult for us all, as we’ve got used to new ways of working, and the painful isolation from our families, friends, and colleagues, which we’re all enduring.
Of course, this time has also brought grief for many, and those families who have lost loved ones are very much in all our thoughts, along with the frontline health and care professionals, and a huge number of other essential workers, who have kept the country going.
Over these past weeks, we’ve seen a noticeable shift in the things on which we place importance.Louise Casella, Director, The Open University in Wales
Before, volunteering was a thing done by the few with limited resources. Now, we’re seeing communities coming together, huge sums of money being raised, and people looking out for one another.
Before, many of us put off exercise and didn’t appreciate the value of nature and the outdoors. Now, we treasure the limited time we have outdoors, and many people are turning to the likes of Joe Wicks to keep fit.
So too, before, learning was often seen as something that culminated with the exit from formal education, for some a degree ceremony at age 21, and then stopped. It’s fascinating how for many this enforced period of change has meant turning to education and learning as a way to keep up their sense of well-being. The Open University’s free online learning platform, OpenLearn, which has thousands of courses and activities in all manner of subjects, has seen a massive increase in the number of people taking advantage of the vast variety of learning on offer.
The Open University in Wales has also been working with the Welsh Government to make our free learning resources available to furloughed workers, so that we’re playing our part in up-skilling, re-skilling, and contributing to the well-being of our communities.
Like everyone else, I look forward to the day when we can return to some semblance of normality. When we can gather happily with friends and family. When we can return to our campuses and workplaces and enjoy the social contact and professional stimulation that comes from that face to face interaction.
But it’s also true that there are some things that I hope we will hold onto. I hope we’ll continue to value learning throughout our lives. I hope we’ll have a better understanding of the need for flexibility – at work and in our studies. And I hope that shift in what we value will inform and guide us in Wales, as we recognise the infrastructure, and for that matter, the people, who most need our investment.
In time, we will come to recover and universities will have a massive role to play in that. We will come together to rebuild our society. The economy will gain strength and change, and the flexibility we have come to value during this period will be part of that change. While people will need new skills, they will also want more control over where and how they obtain them and greater flexibility in how they connect with learning throughout their lives. Because as we do emerge from lockdown and move forward with our lives, we’ll also see that the challenges of 10 weeks ago are still there.
Things like climate change, democratic disengagement, our ageing population – better understanding and engagement is crucial to being able to respond to all these things and more. And by making flexible learning throughout our lives the norm, we can build a Wales fit for future generations. We can foster active citizenship in our people. We should actively grow our research capacity and support public engagement and nurture growth in our capacity for critical thinking and debate. We need our universities to drive and support such developments, so we can have an economy which puts people and communities first, and which responds to our changing society.
That is the power of education. It can change lives. And if, collectively, we give learning the importance and value it deserves throughout our lives, so too can it change our country – for the better.
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