Securing Wales’ future through lifelong learning

Louise Casella, Director of The Open University in Wales, explains why flexible and lifelong learning will be key as we recover and rebuild after the pandemic. 

This article originally appeared in The National.

Over the past year, the economy has experienced a hit like none we have ever known. The old ways of doing things are gone, and as we begin to recover, we will all have to respond.

Central to the task of rebuilding the economy and our society will be ensuring that access to higher learning is available regardless of background or personal circumstances, and that lifelong learning is a right enjoyed by all in Wales. Both to serve society and to fulfil individual potential, we need to be flexible and to be sure that we can combine learning with earning, with caring, and with family life, and to turn the volume up or down on that learning as we need to throughout our lives.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea for us in Wales. Our nation has a rich history of valuing and seeking out flexible ways of learning – the value we place on education is an intrinsic part of our culture.

The challenge for those of us who work in universities then is to ensure that we are fulfilling our part of the equation and providing those opportunities which help people to learn whatever, whenever, and wherever they need to. As we look ahead to the Senedd election, we should reflect on the huge amount of change we’ve seen during this Senedd term.

Even before the pandemic, universities had been developing new ways of opening up learning to more and more people, and a rich part-time offer is vital to that. Universities have already committed to expanding their skills offer, with part-time and lifelong learning at its heart.

There are very real benefits to learners and to the wider economy from this form of learning.

Since the reform of the student finance system, there have been increases to both part-time and postgraduate study in Wales. The OU in Wales itself has seen significant growth. We’ve seen our total student population grow to over 14,000 learners, with more than 7,000 new students now taking up courses.  This represents a 150 per cent growth in the annual number of students joining us.

The flexibility of part-time study means that students can fit learning around their many other commitments, such as caring responsibilities or work. Indeed, more than seven in 10 of our students are in employment alongside their studies.  What is more, we’ve seen encouraging growth in students joining us from Wales’ most deprived communities.

The benefits for individuals are enormous. Research for The Open University just last year found students in Wales who join us with GCSEs as their highest prior qualifications can expect to earn an average of £203,000 more across their lifetime. Not only does this mean increased tax revenue for the public purse and more money in people’s pockets to spend in their local economies, but it also shows that higher learning generates prosperity.

Investment to allow universities to develop more flexible part-time offers helps employers too. We know businesses want the support of the higher education sector to build a resilient and adaptable workforce able to deliver for Wales and compete in the world. Part-time learning, alongside other forms of flexible learning such as degree apprenticeships, will be key to upskilling and reskilling the workforce and addressing those gaps, ensuring that those skills uplifts are relevant.

Of course, the benefits of learning aren’t simply economic. In fact, in one study of Open University students, 86% of respondents said their time at university had helped improve their personal wellbeing, boosted their self-esteem, and increased their confidence.

We owe it to the citizens of Wales to create the accessible opportunities that allow them to keep on learning through life.  As demand for part-time learning increases, so too will the need for greater capacity for our universities to deliver.

That’s why Universities Wales’ manifesto for the Senedd election calls for a commitment to stable and sustainable funding provision for universities.

Recovering and rebuilding in the post-pandemic world will not be easy. Investment in flexible, lifelong learning is key platform for that recovery. That’s why we’re urging parties to commit to developing an ambitious Universities for Skills programme to support innovation and collaboration and help universities provide the flexible learning that people across Wales are crying out for.

Wales now has the opportunity to lead the way as a nation where learning is for life and there are second, third and fourth chances for all of us.