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Open University sets out radical vision for Senedd elections following pandemic

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The Open University (OU) in Wales has called for radical changes to higher education in Wales to meet the challenges set by the coronavirus.  

The university’s manifesto for the 2021 Senedd elections, Brave New Wales, which is published today, examines the unparalleled impact the pandemic has had on Welsh universities, as more and more students are studying from home and in their spare time. It also looks at how the education sector can reduce its impact on climate change and challenge fake news.

Some key recommendations for the next Welsh Government include:
  • tackling digital exclusion and ensuring each household has at least one device and a connection to the internet
  • creating more degree apprenticeships
  • requesting the devolution of broadcasting and legislating for a ‘duty of candour’ applicable to media outlets and social media platforms
  • continuing to provide current maintenance grants to part-time students, which has seen a significant increase in numbers since they were introduced in 2018
  • setting a target to decarbonise the higher education sector by 2035. 

Kirsty Price, 30 is from Machen in Caerphilly, where she lives with her dog Maisy. She is entering her final two years of study with the OU in Wales for a degree in Environmental Science.  

She studies alongside running her own cleaning business, which she hopes to turn into an eco-friendly enterprise.Kirsty Price said:

“Obviously my studies had a break over the summer – however there was an immediate impact on my studies when lockdown began because of the unknown surrounding the pandemic. I was initially really worried about the unfolding situation, and this made it difficult to concentrate on what I was doing because there was so much going on in the world. Thankfully, I’ve adjusted to the stress surrounding the pandemic and accepted that the current situation is the new normal.

““I’ve reduced the intensity of my studies for my final year – this is to enable more of a work/life balance. I love that The Open University advocates flexibility. This has enabled me to adjust my study intensity dependant on my circumstances. This helps instil confidence in my ability to succeed and provides an overall more enjoyable experience.”

Kirsty’s story reflects what many of our students tell us. The pandemic has affected every aspect of their lives, but they’re adapting to new ways of living, working and learning. I want to see the next Welsh Government support more people like her to follow their ambitions – to make it easier for them to study in their communities, to have more routes into education, and to become active, involved citizens. It’s also vital that the valuable support available to part-time students through maintenance grants in Wales continues.” 

Louise Casella, Director of The Open University in Wales

The OU in Wales has seen significant growth in new students in recent years. Undergraduate recruitment has doubled since 2018 when the Welsh Government introduced maintenance grants of up to £4,500 for part-time students. Combined with tuition fee loans, part-time study in Wales has never been so affordable.

There has also been increased demand on the OU’s free online learning platform OpenLearn. Over 27,000 visitors from Wales accessed the site last month, compared to a monthly average of 17,000 before the pandemic. 

Louise Casella added:

“The pandemic has made many people think about online learning as an option – either because they have more spare time at home, or they’re looking to reskill and improve their job prospects. It’s vital that we support and build on this surge of interest in flexible life-long learning so that more people can reach their potential.”

Kirsty is also one of thousands of part-time students who has benefitted from maintenance grants for part-time students in Wales. 

Kirsty Price added:

“Studying could be perceived as a luxury when you’re that little bit older. I come from humble beginnings and I would not have been able to enrol on the degree without the funding that’s available. The funding has enabled me to reduce working hours so that I can study more. The grant really does make it possible to study and work at the same time and has been the difference between me having access to higher education, or not. Thanks to the OU and to the funding available, hopefully I can develop a career that contributes to a more sustainable planet.”

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