Earning a degree while raising children and working at the same time isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. “The confidence boosts from gaining a degree are amazing. I feel really validated,” says Carla Belkevitz, a 2020 graduate of The Open University in Scotland.
The 41-year-old earned an Open bachelor of arts degree (with honours) thanks to a fee grant for low-income students, flexible distance learning courses, and supportive tutors. And that’s all standard practice at the OU.
Established in 1969 as a Four Nations university (meaning that it has a presence in Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland), The Open University’s mission is to be open to people, places, methods, and ideas.
“The OU promotes educational opportunity and social justice by providing a high-quality university education to all who wish to realize their ambitions and fulfill their potential,” says Susan Stewart, director of the OU in Scotland. “We are open to everyone regardless of age, income, geography, and background, and with no requirement for entry qualifications for the vast majority of our courses.”
All courses and apprenticeships at the OU are delivered via supported distance learning, which makes them flexible and able to accommodate students’ other demands—work, family, and caring responsibilities. And that flexibility is essential as 23% of students live in rural or remote areas and may not be able to travel to a campus, and 76% of students work full or part time while studying. In fact, the OU is Scotland’s largest provider of part-time undergraduate higher education.
A Helping Hand
It’s not just that the OU is accommodating of students’ outside responsibilities, but it also actively recruits students from underserved areas. As of 2018/2019, the OU recruited more students from the most deprived areas of Scotland (as measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) than from the least deprived. The majority of undergraduates, like Belkevitz, study for free through a part-time student grant from the Student Awards Agency Scotland for students with a personal income of £25,000 or less.
“I was so lucky to gain a degree with no debt because I was eligible for the grant,” says Belkevitz.
In the time it took her to complete her degree, she and her partner experienced five redundancies (an employer's reduction in workforce because certain jobs are no longer needed) between them. “There is no way I would have been able to study without [the grant].”
The OU works with the Scottish government, specifically the Commission on Widening Access and the Commissioner for Fair Access to Higher Education, to help develop a national framework for supporting students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Much of the OU’s work is facilitated by the Scottish Funding Council’s Widening Access and Retention Fund.
Multiple, Compounding Forms of Disadvantage
The Commission on Widening Access, created in 2015, “set out the ambition that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of entering university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities.” As a benchmark, the Commissioner for Fair Access set a goal that 20% of all higher education entrants should be from the 20% most deprived communities (as measured by SIMD) by the year 2030.
While this goal centers on socioeconomic disadvantages, the commissioner acknowledges there is an understanding that it is not the only form of disadvantage that students face. As he writes in his Fair Access to Higher Education: Progress and Challenges report, “While it is right to keep a tight focus on socio-economic disadvantage—social class—in addressing fair access, other forms of disadvantage—age, gender, disability, care-experience, and ethnicity—should not be ignored... All these factors interact in ways that compound the core disadvantage produced by socio-economic deprivation.”
The OU understands this concept. In addition to the part-time student grant from SAAS, there are several scholarships for students who identify as having a protected characteristic—disabled veterans or carers (called caregivers in the United States), for example. The first of its kind in the U.K., the Disabled Veterans’ Scholarship Fund offers 50 scholarships every year to anyone who has been injured in, or because of, military service. Applicants also receive access to career consultation and support, alternate-format module materials, group forums, and networking opportunities with employers and specialist organizations.
Similarly, the Carers Scholarship is also the first of its kind in the U.K. Launched in 2020, it provides 50 full scholarships to carers “so that they get the chance to study, develop their sense of identity outside of caring, and retrain toward seeking new employment,” says Stewart.
And it’s not exclusively financial support that students receive. As standard operating procedure, all courses are offered in a range of formats to support the 24% of students who declare a disability, explains Stewart. Each student is provided with a dedicated advisor, and additional accommodations, such as specialized equipment or tailored exam arrangements, are available as needed.
“We’re proud of the support offered to prospective students when they’re looking to start a course with the OU,” she says.
Since the OU already provided supported virtual offerings pre-pandemic, the university was poised to play a significant role in helping Scotland navigate COVID-19.
“Drawing on our unique distance-learning model, we’ve collaborated with partners to roll out support at scale across Scotland,” says Stewart.
Some of that support came in the form of free courses offered through OpenLearn, the university’s online learning site. Featuring close to 1,000 free courses on a variety of topics, the site lets learners explore a subject, get inspiration, build skills and confidence, and earn recognition (via badged Open courses), Stewart explains.
As COVID-19 began forcing school and work closures, the OU worked with the Scottish government and Skills Development Scotland (the national skills agency of Scotland) to ensure access for furloughed workers, or those facing redundancy, to all OpenLearn courses available through SDS’s portal. According to Stewart, this enabled “those seeking to upskill and reskill for the changes that the pandemic would bring” to do so for free. The response was monumental. Since its launch in 2006, OpenLearn has had an average of 40,000 daily visits, and that surged to 160,000 at the beginning of lockdown in 2020.
One silver lining of the pandemic has been that it has allowed the OU’s model to shine.
“The OU is a great career move. It gives you an edge,” says Belkevitz. “It fits in with life. You can learn at any time of the day, any time at night. You can do it, whatever life throws at you.”
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