Brenda Gourley: 'It is all a matter of widening participation'

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Since its foundation The Open University has been a pioneer of what is now popularly known as widening participation.

Since its foundation The Open University has been a pioneer of what is now popularly known as widening participation. Widening participation is sometimes understood as being about getting under-represented groups into higher education; this is clearly important, but it must also be about giving all citizens the opportunity to achieve their potential, however old they may be. It is about allowing those who feel they have hit a ceiling or barrier to progression in their career to receive the training they require to move on and achieve professional and personal fulfilment.

No one can expect to have a job for life anymore, and this must change everyone's view of the skills they need. The recently published Department for Education and Science Skills Strategy document says: "We must compete on the basis of our capability for innovation, enterprise, quality... All of that is dependent on raising our skills game." The same document states: "The recent Treasury assessment of the five economic tests for UK membership of the European single currency noted that a highly educated workforce with a culture of lifelong learning is more likely to adapt to economic change."

Modern economic strength comes from our ability to adapt, and this flexibility can only be assured through relevant education and skills. The Open University takes lifelong learning very seriously and this year is offering 90 professional certificates, diplomas and degrees that meet professional and vocational needs, as well as many courses that allow people to improve their contributions through additional language abilities or other improvements that do not strictly come under the rubric of "professional".

Kim Howells, Minister for Lifelong Learning, said in December 2004: "Half of the 13.5m jobs projected to be needed by 2012 are in those occupations most likely to demand graduates. And over half of these are in professional or associate professional occupations where vocational qualifications are important."

Many of the 13.5m jobs needed will be in the key areas of teaching, health and social welfare and the caring services. Open University students and graduates in these areas are at an advantage here, as is evidenced by 1,200 students studying to become social workers, many of whom are care workers being helped by the university to upgrade their skills. These students receive accreditation for the work they do every day, and many of them would not have been able to improve their lot had The Open University not allowed them to earn while they learn. Our nursing and social care qualifications are the largest work-based learning programmes in the UK and are endorsed by nursing and social care regulatory bodies.

Beyond this, the total number of Open University students studying courses that are wholly professionally focused and those who are studying courses which have professional relevance (for example, courses in applied sciences) constitute the majority of our student body. Many would not have been given places by traditional universities that require high entrance qualifications. Given the fact that most of our students are in paid employment, and pay taxes, the overall contribution made by the Open University to the development of the UK economy is a significantly large one - and it is about widening participation.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-chancellor of The Open University