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Adult learning: exploring the policy and practice of widening access

William HastyAuthor:

William Hasty is the Learning Enhancement Officer for The Open University in Scotland.

He works on retention, academic skills development and staff development.

William Hasty

One of the first conclusions drawn by Professor Sir Peter Scott in his early work as the Scottish Government’s Commissioner for Fair Access, is that reaching the targets set out in A Blueprint for Fairness requires “a radical project, more radical perhaps than we care to acknowledge”.

In part this is because the targets it sets us are really quite ambitious, but more so because a major part of the challenge is in recognising that, as Professor Scott puts it, “higher education needs to change, not just help students to fit in”.

Part of this change surely has to centre on how important a role adult education and part-time learning could play in this dynamic landscape.

Professor Scott shared his thinking on this issue at a recent event examining the place of adult education in widening access, hosted by The Open University in Scotland.

Speaking to a diverse audience spanning the sector and its affiliates, Professor Scott cautioned against complacency around both the scale of the task that faces the sector and the social and economic cost of neglecting lifelong learning in pursuing that task.     

From what was a rich and challenging address, one particular contention has stuck with me in the weeks since. It is the idea that, if we are “really serious about fair access, we have to ask searching questions about how we think about success, and even how we assess attainment”.

Rethinking a notion like success or attainment, at every stage of the journey into, through and out of higher education, is a radical endeavour.

The political will and desire among practitioners to effect such change is evidently there. Initiatives such as contextualised admissions and the Scottish Wider Access Programme, which have been successfully picking away at this problem for some time now, are testament to that. But, there is no doubt that there is some way to go before we can be sure we are grasping the kind of radical approach evoked by Professor Scott.

Not surprisingly, talk of radical approaches to higher education are welcome at The Open University, an institution famous for being open to people, places, methods and ideas, and one which has been passionately working for some time on the challenge being set out by the Commissioner.

Around 20% of the students studying with The Open University in Scotland have no recognised qualifications when they begin. Because it is so well established, it’s easy to overlook, but The OU have developed quite a radical approach to contextualised entry. Almost all of our modules and qualifications require no entry qualifications at all.

This approach is hugely successful in widening access to higher education, especially for many mature and disabled learners. In the more “joined-up” and “scaled-up” future Professor Scott proposes for work on fair access in Scotland, we should be asking what role The OU’s openness could play in not only providing access to higher education, but in preparing a wide range of students for a diversity of learner journeys undertaken across the sector.

In our work in schools across Scotland, with the Young Applicants in Schools (YASS) programme, and in the community with Open Learning Champions, we are already successfully building bridges and opening up pathways for learners on their way to a wide range of educational destinations.   

Another important issue worth noting: students who can’t or don’t want to commit to full-time study or study at a campus, such as those with caring responsibilities or work commitments, would struggle to access higher education at all if not for the kind of innovative, flexible, part-time approach pioneered by The OU.

For nearly fifty years, The OU has been open to these learners because we see success, and, crucially, the potential for success, in a different way. In other words, The OU is already doing – and very well at that – some of the radical things Professor Scott is asking the sector to consider if fair access targets are to be reached.   

The experience of learning with The OU can be life-changing for individuals, and result in changes for their families, communities in which they live, and society more widely. This demonstrates the potential of bringing adult education and part-time learning into the centre of our vision for change in higher education. As the widening access agenda in Scotland continues to gather pace and momentum, it is vital we don’t lose sight of this. Fair access, as set out in the early work of Professor Scott, demands that we don’t.

Read a summary of The OU in Scotland-hosted seminar on the place of adult learning in widening access to higher education.

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