The Power of Part Time Higher Education – transforming lives & careers in NI with the OU

The Open University has come a long way … and yet has never strayed too far from its roots.

Apple Macintosh 128kMy first experience of an Apple Macintosh was an OU machine, had two floppy drives (one internal, one external) and no hard drive. The arrowless keyboard made an industrial clattering sound as you typed. With System and Finder on floppy discs, there was much swapping of floppies as MacPaint and MacWrite were loaded up. And then there was the joy of programming Hypercard!

In the days of 3 terrestrial TV channels I remember watching bearded lecturers explaining differentiation and integration long before any maths teacher deemed the topic necessary to impart. Those programmes moved to BBC 2’s overnight Learning Zone in the late 1990s.

DEL CommitteeSince then, OU course delivery technology has shifted through video and DVD to podcasts, online video and learning materials packaged up for use on smart devices.

On Monday evening, The Open University held a reception in conjunction with the Committee for Employment and Learning to update MLAs and Assembly and department staff about the university’s work and to highlight the power of part time higher education.

Robin Swann chairs the committee and welcomed The Open University’s winter reception to Parliament Buildings. The North Antrim representative is not unique amongst MLAs in being an OU graduate.

Access to higher education is paramount in Northern Ireland, if we are to equip our citizens with the skills and competencies they need to participate fully in civil society, contribute to economic life, and ultimately achieve their potential.

DEL Minister Stephen Farry and John D ArcyHe referred to the debate in the Assembly that had wrapped up just prior to the OU event: [Official Report, page 42-51]

That this Assembly acknowledges the power of part-time higher education in Northern Ireland to contribute to economic growth, to boost productivity and to increase social mobility; recognises that it enables citizens to fit their studies around their employment and caring responsibilities, apply their knowledge to the workplace immediately, and to upskill and reskill to meet the skills needs of employers in key growth areas; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning, and his Executive colleagues, to prioritise the growth of part-time higher education in Northern Ireland.

During the debate several MLAs referred to the need for investment in higher education to support the predicted demand for skills in light of any reduction in corporation tax. Phil Flanagan also raised the need for “access to good broadband [in rural communities] is crucial if we are really going to maximise the benefit that can present itself through part-time education”.

OU students across NI by constituencyBack in the room, Robin Swann referred to the OU as is the largest provider of part-time higher education in NI, with almost 4,000 students in spread across the 18 constituencies. He said that “those living in rural areas who cannot travel to our main cities to a campus-based university, are not disadvantaged”.

  • 73% of those students are also working, either part-time or full-time;
  • majority of OU students in NI are over 25 and many have family and caring responsibilities;
  • 15% of the OU student community here has a disability, requiring specific support.

The OU’s director John D’Arcy said that supporting part time study was in the institution’s DNA.

The key thing for most of our learners is the flexibility that our style of learning can bring to their lifestyles, whether caring for families, holding down a job, starting a business or whatever.

He reminded attendees that the BBC Sunday evening natural history series The Hunt is co-produced by the Open University, a long way from “men with crazy ties talking about mathematics and physics”!

OU achievements in NIThrough grants from London, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments, the OU provide a wide range free learning material to non-students:

ou female 3 nurseThe average age of an OU student in NI is 30; around half of NI students receive financial support towards their fees; and the OU is the top university for student satisfaction in NI for eleven years running.

The reception finished with a video in which three students talked about their own experiences and how part time learning had transformed their lives, and an opportunity to talk to some of these students and others who had gathered with the MLAs and civil servants.

It is surely a challenge for NI politicians to wake up to the oddity of the Executive cutting higher education budgets while expecting business growth that can help fund Corporation Tax, loans from the Treasury and contribute towards our Welfare system.

Macintosh image via Wikipedia / All About Apple Museum

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  • eac1968

    I have studied with the OU in the past and really enjoyed it. But I was very badly let down by the lack of support for disabled students from the OU Ireland regional office in Belfast. It destroyed my confidence and for several years made me question my own abilities. Since then, I have gone on to earn a second Master’s degree via the University of London’s online learning options. Maybe OU has got better with disability support in the intervening years, but I’ll be sticking with UoL.

  • Frances Morton

    Thanks for your comment. We would be happy to discuss this with you at any time – please contact us on Belfast-comms@open.ac.uk .