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Open to change: Susan Stewart, director of Open University in Scotland, is planning a revolution

Susan Stewart is leading the fourth largest university, by student numbers, in Scotland. Credit: Anna Moffat

Open to change: Susan Stewart, director of Open University in Scotland, is planning a revolution

Widening access and broadening horizons, Stewart says OU is vital to pandemic recovery

When Susan Stewart was at school, a teacher suggested to her that she “wouldn’t enjoy” university. That wasn’t true then and now, after a career that’s taken her from Scotland to Westminster, Washington and back, during which time she became Scotland’s first diplomat to the United States in the wake of 9/11 and worked to bridge the inter-governmental gap in the transition to devolution. she’s now leading the Open University (OU) in Scotland. And clearly enjoying it. 

“I’ve been very, very privileged,” she says, “but this is by far the most satisfying job I’ve ever had. It’s a movement for change.” 

If it’s satisfying, it’s also challenging. And in the last couple of years, has been increasingly hard and Stewart says the OU is now experiencing “chronic underfunding” to the tune of £16m. 

And while seeking solutions to that and leading the institution through lockdowns, Stewart was also supporting her partner, then-Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, who had the unenviable position of trying to find a way through the health crisis for all of us. The key, Stewart shares, was plenty of home-made soup for herself, Freeman and the First Minister. 

“My own mental health would probably have been better if I’d come off Twitter,” she adds. “Politicians are fair game for criticism and they should be held to account but some of the personal viciousness was really beyond the pale. I think that’s true across Twitter, but particularly for women. A lot of the comments Jeane got were also very ageist.” 

Unique in Scotland, the OU reaches into every part of the country, delivering courses of up to postgraduate level to more than 22,000 people, 40 per cent of whom are from the two most deprived quintiles and 25 per cent of whom have disabilities. With distance learning in its bones, it was better placed than most organisations to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic, Stewart says, but having staff “taking calls from distressed students from a corner of their bedrooms” brought new pressures, as did a surge in sign-ups. 

Change management and digital courses are especially popular with the new cohort, as are STEM subjects. Around half of the STEM intake are women, while the numbers of men taking nursing and education courses are also higher than average. There’s “clear demand and clear need for the kind of higher education and other services we are providing”, Stewart says.  

That’s exactly as Jennie Lee MP intended the Open University to be when, as Minister for the Arts, she authored the 1966 White Paper that led to OU’s foundation. Working to bring Harold Wilson’s vision of a “university of the air” to life and extend access to higher education, the Lochgelly-born politician said there would be “no question” of offering an “inferior” package.  

Widening access is something Stewart is passionate about. A “working class kid from Renfrew,” she was the first in her family to attend university and one of few of her high school peers to do so. One teacher, she remembers, tried to advise her against entering the University of St Andrews, where she studied Philosophy with International Relations. He’d told her she “wouldn’t enjoy” it there, but Stewart says that was a euphemism for what he was really thinking – that she wasn’t good enough.  

Stewart “knew nothing about university at all,” she says, and the first weeks were “a bit of a culture shock”. “People would say ‘where are you from?’,” she remembers, “then they’d say ‘where did you go to school?’ I didn’t understand that question until I realised most kids had gone to boarding school.  

“But St Andrews was very good to, and for, me.” 

There, Stewart, who would go on to work for Jack McConnell, got involved with the Labour Party and learned to “debate respectfully with people who didn’t share my opinions”. She did the same in the philosophy tutorials where she argued the big questions with a born-again evangelical Christian from America’s south and a man with “POW” tattooed on his arm in reference to the decade he’d spent in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison. The trio are still in touch after a career that saw Stewart move into broadcasting with STV’s Scottish Questions series and on to Strathclyde Regional Council, the Scottish Office and the British Embassy in Washington, where she was appointed First Secretary of Scottish Affairs. 

She arrived three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, taking up a desk at a heavily guarded office across the road from the Vice-President’s rooms. While it wasn’t her job title, she was essentially there as the ambassador of the Scottish Executive, working to raise the country’s profile in an America in flux. There were still missing persons posters at Penn Station when she stepped off the train there two weeks after she’d landed in the US. There was still the hope that some of the victims were alive somewhere. And as the weeks and months went on, there were telegrams from the embassy to Whitehall about Afghanistan and Iraq. She’s signed the Official Secrets Act and so won’t touch on what the content was, other than to say it was a “fascinating” time which included, amongst other things, strutting down the catwalk during NYC Tartan Week with Fred MacAulay on her arm, something that also coincided with her 40th birthday. 

“My experiences in Washington changed my political perspective, seeing the influence and power of other smaller European countries such as Ireland,” she says. “I worked under two British ambassadors, one of whom, Sir Christopher Meyer, used to go on about adding value to the domestic policy agenda. I would pipe up ‘there are more than one’. Even in the early days of devolution there was still divergence, notably on higher education fees and free personal care for the elderly.” 

That change in perspective eventually saw Stewart, a radical feminist, become a co-founder of Women for Independence and leave a senior position at Glasgow University to join the campaign team at Yes Scotland. She’s not a member of any political party, she says, and OU “will be remaining scrupulously neutral” if indyref2 is called. “Our staff and students have all kinds of views on independence, probably much the same way as the rest of the population,” she says. 

Stewart’s been thinking a lot about health and social care recently. She’s certain OU can help make this “an attractive career option” and help to bring more young people into the field and ease the pressures on the sector. There have been “exploratory discussions” with mental wellbeing and social care minister Kevin Stewart about developing further pathways into the sector and assisting existing staff to upskill.  

That’s a word Stewart uses a lot and it’s central to the OU ethos. “The world of work is changing,” she says. “One of the consequences of the pandemic is certain changes in the workforce have been accelerated. The necessity for all of us to do reskilling and upskilling is only going to increase. Learning is not always a linear journey.” 

If the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council (SFC) are “serious about lifelong learning”, she argues, they have to give her university “fair funding” to close that £16m gap. Unlike other universities, OU is funded on student numbers at completion, not registration. The sum is also based on full-time equivalent (FTE) numbers, with most students learning on a modular and part-time basis. 

But not every student completes their course, with some transferring credits earned through OU to bricks-and-mortar universities. The pandemic led to a jump in student numbers and while FTE numbers hit 7400, OU was only funded for 4400 of these. For the rest, it will receive only module fees and no teaching grant. 

Stewart fears that without a new settlement, the OU will become less open, something that would run contrary to its ethos. “Our student numbers have risen far in excess of the numbers we are funded for,” she says, “and yet we are meeting all the SFC and Scottish Government indicators in terms of widening access. 

“We keep taking more and more students; other universities’ numbers are capped. During the pandemic our numbers went up by 30 per cent. There’s clear demand and clear need for the kind of higher education and other services we are providing.  

“Because we are very large, we have managed to still offer first class higher education and in fact last year got 92 per cent student satisfaction, coming second in Scotland behind St Andrews. We work because of economies of scale, but there will come a point where it is not sustainable. We would have to consider putting a cap on numbers and saying ‘no’ to students.  

“We don’t want to go there because we are true to our mission. The last thing we want to do is to say to students, often the most disadvantaged people in Scottish society and disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, is that we are forced to close our doors.  

“We will be making a case for fair funding and parity for part-time. It has never been more needed than as Scotland is emerging from the pandemic.” 

To that end, OU has been working with employers to help staff facing redundancy to prepare for their futures. Debenhams is one, the Arcadia group another. And it has teamed up with football clubs on local employment initiatives, though not her own beloved St Mirren, yet.  

Stewart, who came out at the age of 20, knows what it is to have career options closed off. During her student days at a university where many graduates entered the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Stewart was told “It’s a shame you’re gay, Susan” because the ban on homosexuals in the civil service would preclude her from joining. “It was what it was,” she says, and she notes that, while both working for the Scottish Executive, she and Freeman faced newspaper headlines about their relationship that would make a reader wince today. “Certain environments were closed to me,” she says. “In my early years in political journalism there weren’t many lesbians, there weren’t many role models. I couldn’t have told you a lesbian politician. There were rumours and nods and winks but we were a long way from the Kezias and Ruths.” 

And a long way from the Jeanes, too. Freeman retired from politics at the last election, but Stewart recalls how she’d work 18-hour days when Covid hit. “Health Secretary in the best of times is one of the toughest gigs in government, and this was the worst of times,” she says. The most practical thing she could do, she decided, was make a steady supply of soup for Freeman and the First Minister. Cock-a-leekie and tomato, chorizo and chickpea were favourites. “I used to watch those [Janey Godley] videos of the press conferences saying, ‘Frank, get the door, let’s get some chips,’ and I’d laugh because I knew exactly what they were having for lunch that day.” 

Read the most recent article written by Kirsteen Paterson - Political Spin: Pete Wishart MP

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