OU's widening access role in Scotland 'absolutely critical'

Written by Tom Freeman on 23 June 2015 in Interviews

Peter Horrocks tells Holyrood how he can help the Open University help Scotland

“Scotland’s very important for the OU”, the Open University’s new vice chancellor Peter Horrocks tells Holyrood.

Horrocks was appointed to the role at the end of last year, after over 30 years at the BBC where he had been director of the World Service since 2009.

He has already been in Scotland several times as, he points out, the OU is the only higher education institution which operates across all UK nations. It has a “great connection” to Scotland through Jennie Lee, the Fife MP and Education Minister who set the institution up in 1965 under Harold Wilson.


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The relationship, however, isn’t purely historical. “Because of the social and political environment there’s a huge amount of support for the OU and we’re able to be a success story for Scotland, so I’m here to help the OU in Scotland to be as effective as possible,” says Horrocks.

He says the rest of the UK could learn from “some of the progressive ideas” to come out of Scotland.

“There’s the ability of the Scottish sector to come together, to exchange ideas, and that’s something I’ve been able to benefit from, whether they’re the ancient universities, the more modern universities or colleges. Obviously there are differences, but there’s more of a sense of cohesiveness about the Scottish education scene, certainly to someone coming to it new. Whereas in England there’s very much a purely competitive environment.”

For Horrocks, the OU’s tradition of learning without borders or barriers can feed directly into the Scottish Government’s widening access commission, chaired by Dame Ruth Silver.

“This is the unsung success story of the OU. People don’t realise its scale and its ability to be able to reach out to parts of the community many other institutions can’t. So the OU’s widening access role in Scotland is absolutely critical,” he says.

The Open University has more than 14,000 students in Scotland, with over half of them eligible to receive part-time fee grants because they have an individual income of under £25,000.

“That gives you a measure of the skew of our student body towards widening participation. That’s the social aspect of it, but there’s a geographic aspect as well. Clearly in terms of the more remote parts of the country, being able to study at distance is a huge advantage.”

Open University students also tend to be older. “There are clearly some parts of Scotland, communities, where the assumption of moving on into education after school is not that strong, but many people realise the need for that later in their lives. The ability to be able to study part-time whilst keeping their family responsibilities, that’s what the OU offers,” says Horrocks, pointing to a number of initiatives the University has working with employers and trade unions to upskill workforces.

The fact courses do not have minimum entry qualifications is an obvious route to accessibility, he says. “People ask me about the innovation in the OU, and the most innovative thing about the OU is its very first idea – that anyone can come.”

As a former journalist, it is clear Horrocks sees the narrative of the institution as an important part of building its future, with current marketing campaigns targeting social media and focusing on individual student stories. Historically, though, the OU has been looked down upon by some of the more traditional universities. Not in Scotland, insists Horrocks.

“I think that more socially and politically cohesive kind of culture you get in Scotland is why the OU feels very at home in Scotland. Certainly in terms of our relationships with all of the other higher education, and indeed further education, institutions and colleges we have a very good partnership,” he says.

These partnerships will be realised in a forthcoming digital platform for free and open educational resources, where the OU will host various curricula, which is funded by the Scottish Funding Council. This has been possible, Horrocks says, because the OU is already ‘virtual’ and has always adapted to new technology.

“If you want anything to do with Scottish intellectual expertise that will be available, and we’re making that service available to any Scotland-based institution of knowledge. That includes non-universities as well. Museums, other kinds of intellectual partners.”

Digital ideas and creating a joined-up environment are what the OU will bring to the widening access commission, Horrocks says. The commission should be about spreading good practice, he argues, and he hopes the “innovation and social mission” of the OU can align with.

“Of course it’s responding to some political imperatives and context which needs to be addressed, but coming from that world service background, realising after spending lots of time in Africa and Asia, India in particular, these countries which are now our competitors in the global marketplace are now producing thousands and thousands of brilliant enterprising graduates at low cost. Scotland the UK needs to be looking at, innovating and moving fast in order that our society doesn’t fall behind.”

Holyrood asks if coming to summer-less Edinburgh isn’t a bit of a come-down from his high-flying role in another global institution with a public mission.

“One of the last meetings I had was with Aung San Suu Kyi in the Burmese capital and being able to chat to her about her political career and the challenges she faces, it was a mind-bending experience, and I loved every minute of it.

“Broadcasting influences people, but at quite a distance, informing them about the world. It’s an important thing to do, but education really directly changes people’s lives. There’s an intensity about that, and a kind of satisfaction in helping to be responsible for an organisation that delivers that.”

He says he saw first-hand the direct impact of this at the OU graduation at the Usher Hall recently.

“It’s high quality information. The world service and the Open University are both brilliant British ideas, innovations of the last century which I’ve had the privilege and honour of being responsible for and propelling them into this century. The difference with the OU is you get to meet the people and see how their lives are being changed. It’s hugely inspiring and personally satisfying.” 

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