The Open University in Wales is partnering with the Institute of Welsh Affairs to host an exciting event next month looking at the challenges and opportunities the education and lifelong learning sector faces during the coming decades.
As Wales heads towards the Senedd elections in 2021, this event will look at the big picture and bring people from across Wales’ lifelong learning sector together to consider how we all need to adapt so that education continues to be open to all.
External Affairs Manager Cerith Rhys Jones explains why now is the right time to reflect on the past 50 years and ask ourselves if we’re prepared to be as brave in our thinking today as the OU’s founders were in 1969.
Picture: The OU in Wales' office from 1981 to 2007, Cathedral Road, Cardiff
Where we’ve been
I’m very new to The Open University in Wales, having only joined in January, but even before joining, I knew of the OU’s amazing track record in opening up education to all.
In fact, that very idea—that learning can and should be a lifelong experience available to everyone—is one of the main reasons I wanted to work here!
I remember last year’s fantastic celebrations of the OU’s 50th anniversary, and hearing stories from some of the OU’s alumni about how their learning with us changed their lives.
Over the course of the last 50 years, learning with the OU has transformed so many lives all across these islands and beyond. There is so much to be proud of.
But of course, none of that would have been possible without the bold and radical thinking of our founders. It may seem a distant memory now, but it was nothing short of revolutionary.
It had never been done before, and a ‘university of the air’ was written off by opponents as an impossible, unworkable pipe dream.
Nevertheless, they pressed on, and today the OU is an established household name, and here in Wales, the largest provider of part-time undergraduate education.
Where we are now
The OU in Wales put a huge amount of work into advocating for part-time, flexible, and distance learning over many years. It was thanks in no small part to the efforts of the OU in Wales that Professor Sir Ian Diamond’s review of higher education funding and student finance recommended parity of support for part-time students.
And when Kirsty Williams AM joined the Welsh Government as Cabinet Secretary for Education in 2016, she made implementation of the Diamond Review’s recommendations one of her core policies.
The new system came into effect in 2018/19. Since the introduction of the Welsh Government’s reforms to student support, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people studying with us, which goes to show that a disparity in the support available to flexible learners was one of the biggest barriers to lifelong learning.
Because people are now able to access support which allows them to study flexibly and at distance while continuing to work or fulfil their other commitments, education is now open to so many more thousands of Welsh citizens, and that gives us yet another reason to celebrate.
But at the start of this new decade, in amongst all the celebrations, it’s timely that we pause for a moment to reflect on the next 50 years.
Where we’re going
Few will deny that Wales faces some significant challenges, and certainly a great deal of change, over the coming decades.
In the here and now, think of what the UK’s exit from the EU means and the change that will be required across Welsh life in order to respond to that.
But think also of the fact that we have an ageing population, and what that means for the skills agenda. People will need to be able to up-skill and reskill more often throughout their lives.
We live in the age of climate emergency, and there is very little time left to turn the tide on catastrophic climate change. Think about what that means for our economy and our communities.
Today’s world is one of rapid and constant technological advancement. Automation, AI and robotics are all around us, and as we continue on the path to being a fully-digital society, what does that mean for the way we live, work, and learn?
Think, too, of the particular situation of Wales: a largely rural country with a growing urban base, our relatively lower incomes, our relatively disconnected physical and digital infrastructure, the growing number of Welsh speakers, and a widening gender pay gap.
Some of these are positive, while others give great cause for concern. But all are challenges and—crucially—all must be viewed as opportunities for Wales to grow, develop, and change.
The question for us is how should the lifelong learning sector respond? How do we ourselves adapt to what the next 50 years has in store for us so that education continues to be open to every citizen of Wales? How do we use the base we have as a springboard for continued innovation?
In short: are we prepared to be as bold and brave in our thinking today as the OU’s founders were in 1969?
Brave New Wales: Challenges for lifelong learning in changing times
These are just some of the questions we’ll try to answer at our event on 10 March 2020.
We’re proud to be delivering the event in partnership with the Institute of Welsh Affairs and look forward to hearing from, amongst others, Education Minister Kirsty Williams AM and reluctant futurist Mark Stevenson.
We’ll hear from a range of voices from the worlds of education, business, sustainability, and equality, and together, work out what we all need to do in order to meet the evolving needs of current and future generations of learners.
Throughout the day there will be opportunities to hear from some of Wales’ foremost experts in their respective fields, and then to think and discuss how we can apply their perspectives in the work we all do.
It’s shaping up to be a fascinating event, and we really hope you’ll join us.
Tickets are free but registration is required. Please head to the Eventbrite page to register now.
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The OU in Wales recently launched a package of online courses in everyday maths and English skills, which are available for free on its OpenLearn site.
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