If, like me, you were around in the 1970s, you may remember those programmes that were on the BBC waayyy late, when you should have been in bed. These were the programmes produced by the Open University. In my memory, they were always presented by a man in a blue tie and were about sciency things. My young imagination conjured a vision of people all across the country sitting – in the romantic light of a desk-lamp, like Jude the Obscure – scribbling notes. What privileged knowledge did they get, in the middle of the night? And then I was shooshed off to bed. I had no idea then how big a part of my life the OU would become.
Let’s begin with some facts and figures…
1,320 – Current Open University students in Ayrshire.
28 – Average age of new undergraduates
92 – Oldest current OU student in Scotland
21,300 – People learning with the Open University in Scotland. Of these, 74% are in employment, 55% are learning for career reasons, 23% live in rural or remote areas, and 26% are studying with a disability.
Also, the OU has a significant impact in the prison community, with a number of students learning from secure environments.
1,319 – Number of OU students in Ayrshire if it weren’t for me. It’s nice to be counted sometimes, isn’t it? This will be my third year of study with the Open University, heading towards completing my Master’s degree.
What’s unusual about me as an OU student – other than that I’m a bit longer in the tooth than most! – is that alongside my studies, I am also an OU tutor, or more correctly, Associate Lecturer. So, I have views from both sides of the teaching/learning coin. As a lecturer, I joined the OU in 2010 and have since tutored around 1,500 students on the sport, fitness and coaching degree programme. Based at home, I use a Virtual Learning Environment to connect with students and colleagues. For seven years, this role ran happily alongside my ‘day job’ – a common profile amongst us ‘ALs’. This brings added dimensions to our teaching and also reflects the experience and challenges of our students, many of whom are also working. It’s a fruitful model. So fruitful for me, in fact, that – inspired by interactions with colleagues and students from all kinds of backgrounds, in all kinds of contexts, and studying all over the world – in 2016 I gave up the ‘day job’ to expand my OU role and to enter the scary, challenging and awesome world of entrepreneurship.
A business owner? Me? Never. But this all changed one cold, rainy evening. I was delivering a telephone tutorial to one of my students, and he told me about the business he had just started, a business that had been merely a dream until he came to the OU. And then, through his learning and the reflection supported by his tutors, he found the confidence to take the plunge. And now, his enthusiasm bubbled down the phone to me. In a corner of my mind, a small door cracked open, seeping light onto the dark, dusty floor. But more about that later.
First, a few more facts. What can you study at the Open University? If it’s a degree you’re looking for, there are over 100 subject-based undergraduate degrees – accounting, computing, criminology, health and social care, languages, law, literature, mathematics, and a full range of the sciences. You name it! Another option is the Open Degree programme, which allows students to design their own degree, combining modules from across different subject areas to either reflect their personal interests or lead them towards a specific career or business path. Degree study can take three years for full-time students, but many study part-time while working and take six years, and some take much longer, fitting modules around their lives. For postgraduate study, some 70 programmes are available, ranging from Art History to Translation, and from Postgraduate Certificate to Master’s degree.
So, what does a typical OU student look like? Well, there is no typical. Some come to the OU in their teens, going straight into degree programmes or entering via Access courses or the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme (aka YASS), which has involved 309 Scottish schools to 2022 (most recent figures). As for the upper age, there is no limit. This means it’s never too late to start, and that all students have the opportunity to learn from student peers of all ages and from all backgrounds. Most students work, either full- or part-time, some are single, many have families and might be bringing up young children alongside their studies. Some come to the OU having transferred credits from HNC and HND programmes they’ve studied elsewhere. And 20% of new undergraduate students enter the OU without the usual entry requirements for university.
Often, students come to the OU carrying difficult previous experiences of education, feeling misunderstood and as if they ‘failed’. My friend Laura is one example. Laura recently graduated with a BSc (Hons), having been told at school that she would never achieve academically, far less go to university. She believed that, but somewhere in her was a glimmer of something else, and it was this that encouraged her to enrol with the OU six years ago. I have watched her confidence blossom over that time, and now – in her mid-40s – she is forging ahead with her career, applying her learning and supported by a new self-belief.
There’s no requirement to study for a degree with the OU. Many just study individual modules, from personal interest or to learn a specific skill or knowledge area. Some modules can be completed in three or four months, others run over the full academic year (usually October-May, or some have a February start). And then there’s the Open Learn platform, on which you can find literally thousands of free (yes, FREE!) short courses across every subject you can think of. ‘See where your curiosity takes you’ is the strapline for Open Learn. It’s easy to become addicted!
Coming back to that door that cracked open in my mind… I had followed a traditional educational route, getting a job after graduating at 23 and embarking on a ‘sensible’ career path. But I had always suspected there must be something more exciting. And there was! The Open University, in what I have experienced as both tutor and student, showed me that. And that’s what gave me the resources and the confidence to set up my own business as a Menopause Educator and Coach.
It seems like a new direction, but here again, the OU tugs companionably at my fingers. It does a huge amount of work to support business and entrepreneurship, in particular through direct business funding, e.g. the Flexible Workforce Development Fund, which provides funded training worth up to £5,000 so that businesses (including sole traders) can link their requirements to OU learning provision at low or no cost. Employment is also supported through the Opportunity Hub, where businesses can promote themselves to OU students and advertise jobs. And did you know that the OU produces more directors and CEOs than any other university? Quite a thought to finish on.
But before I go, let’s not forget the BBC. The late night TV programmes may have slid gracefully into history, but the OU still has close links with the BBC, producing a wide range of educational content. And there’s not a blue tie in sight!
Check out the Open University website here: