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Open University to bridge the skills gap in local communities

Open University

The Open University (OU) will partner with colleges to improve prospects for communities across England. Backed by £10 million of Government funding, the scheme will provide higher and technical education to bridge the skills gap and create employment opportunities in local areas.

Under the scheme, The OU, Department for Education and the Office for Students will work with colleges to bolster the availability of targeted higher education programmes at levels 4 and 5. Ultimately, the initiative will help further education providers to expand their range of high-quality technical courses, support people to secure high-paying jobs and boost the economy across the nation.

Flexible learning

According to The OU, ‘Courses will be shorter than a traditional three-year degree, offering a mix of blended, face-to-face and on-line learning to fit around people’s lives and in their local communities.’ As opposed to committing to a degree which lasts for three to four years, shorter courses will provide students with the platform to study in a way which works for them.

In the Embracing Flexibility report, figures reveal that 55% of people prefer blended learning more than any other style of learning. By breaking down existing barriers, the accessibility of technical courses will not only open new doors to local communities but boost much-needed diversity in the higher education system.

Announcing the scheme, Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan said: “For too long, people have had to look beyond their hometown for higher education courses. The Government is backing The Open University with the funding and support to partner up with local colleges to offer high-quality higher education and training, targeting cold spots across the county, so everyone can upskill wherever they live. This marks a new era for higher education, supporting more people to gain the skills needed to get good jobs, with higher wages that will help to grow the economy and tackle the cost of living.”

Accessing the higher education system

However, the scheme follows the Government’s recent announcement that Michelle Donelan, the Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, is consulting to reform the student loan system in England in the hope to reduce the number of ‘low value’ courses taken by students. The reforms would prevent applicants who had not achieved at least a grade 4 or C in English and Maths at GCSE level from accessing student loans and, in many cases, university.

As expected, the initiative received a backlash when the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that the proposals would have disproportionately disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Under these plans, around 23% of black undergraduates at English universities would have failed to qualify for student loans as well as 13% of undergraduates from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds. Though, as little as 7% of white British undergraduates would have failed to access the loans.

National Union of Students (NUS) President, Larissa Kennedy said: “This government parrots the language of ‘levelling up’ but these proposals are classist, ableist and racist: they cruelly target those from marginalised communities and seek to gatekeep education.”

Perhaps, the Government has taken criticism on board and the new scheme is set to better diversity and accessibility across the higher education system. Commenting on the initiative, Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, said: “Further education colleges are at the heart of their communities. By the Government supporting us to work with colleges to develop their higher education offer, we can together make a huge contribution to levelling up our most disadvantaged areas. These new courses will provide advanced skills that can attract new businesses and help others grow, creating sustainable and highly skilled jobs”.

Final thought

After the backlash of the reformed student loan system, the Government’s move to level up disadvantaged areas across England is a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen whether the sum of the Governments changes to higher education will lead to more or less people entering higher education whether at home or on campuses.

However it must be a good thing that people will not have to look beyond their hometown for high-quality, technical training. Instead, they have the opportunity to receive a qualification backed by The OU, a world-renowned institution that has been offering accessible higher education courses for more than fifty years.

Photo Credit: Karolina Grabowska

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