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Learning for everyone supports recovery

Susan Stewart, OU in Scotland DirectorAuthor: 

Susan Stewart is the Director of The Open University in Scotland.

This summer’s report by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery has recognised the role universities play in Scotland’s growth, and that this contribution is even more vital as we plan to revive our economy post Covid-19.

At The Open University in Scotland, with 75% of our current 18,000 students in full or part-time employment, we are acutely aware of the impact that the pandemic has had on workers and businesses.  

The Benny Higgins review also drew attention to the need to provide learning opportunities to people at all life stages supporting them to reskill and enhance their employability in a changing jobs market. The OU was established over 50 years ago with a mission to offer accessible, high quality education to everyone regardless of age, background or qualifications.  With over 200,000 people who have studied with the OU since then, we have helped many people to improve their career prospects, and also supported the national economy to develop and utilise the skills of the whole population.  

Scotland map with student numbers It is this emphasis on social justice and the widest civic approach which drives everything we do at The Open University. As we face an uncertain future, this has never been needed more. With students from the Shetland Isles to Dumfries and Galloway, the combination of our national reach and online delivery model mean we are strongly positioned to help Scotland’s social and economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic. 

We have already worked in partnership with a number of companies, agencies and government to help minimise the impact of the pandemic on workers and businesses. At the very start of lockdown, we worked rapidly with the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland to develop a dedicated route for furloughed workers to access our 1000+ free online OpenLearn courses through myworldofwork.co.uk.

In the three months from April to June 2020, our free courses on the OpenLearn platform were accessed by 2.5 million visitors.

FutureLearn, the online platform founded by The Open University, was able to respond rapidly with short, skills-based modules or microcredentials delivering healthcare-related skills and a hugely successful online teaching course to support college and university teachers with the practical skills to successfully create online courses.

Working with Partnership Action for Continuing Employment (PACE), we have offered tailored support for employees and individual businesses facing redundancy situations. Working with Scottish Funding Council, we are providing practical and accessible training opportunities for those wishing to reskill.  One example of this work is the new range of Upskilling Modules we promoted in late June providing opportunities for those in uncertain employment to reskill in areas where there are Scottish skills gaps such as management, IT, digital and engineering. These courses attracted four times more applications than places available. This demonstrates a clear demand, and the funding must follow.

PACE and Skills Development Scotland have highlighted particular impact on the leisure and hospitality, retail, manufacturing and rural industries. Workers with no qualifications are over twice as likely to work in these hardest hit sectors than those with a degree. Further evidence indicates that the pandemic will have a disproportionate effect on the people who are most deprived and least qualified. With almost 40% of OU undergraduates in Scotland based in the two most deprived SIMD areas, we believe it is vital that widening access to higher education is not only maintained but accelerated to ensure that inequalities in society are not deepened.

As the economy restarts, we are ready to put our expertise in online education and inclusive delivery into action. Learning has an essential role in this, and it is vital, for Scotland, that we achieve an inclusive recovery.

This blog was originally published by Holyrood Magazine.

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