Collaboration with the OU: The OU Students Northern Ireland election manifesto

The Students Association recently worked with The OU in Northern Ireland office to publish our own student manifesto for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

Without The Open University, there would be no OU Students Association; our histories are interwoven, and we have shared the goal of improving the educational journey of OU students for the past five decades. That is why throughout April in the year of the Association’s 50th anniversary, we will be celebrating the collaborative work we do with the OU. This crucial work is always for the benefit of our students. We want to talk about why, in 2022, our partnership is stronger than ever.

One of the areas of the OU we work very closely with are the teams in the nations offices; whilst the University’s main campus is in Milton Keynes, there are OU offices and dedicated teams based in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, who are there to provide more tailored support to students from their country.

As they are more focused on local policies and the population demographic, the nations are best placed to work on issues such as widening participation and access to education. They work with employers in both the public and private sectors to address important skills gaps and invest in new learning pathways for students and employers.

The Association’s Area Representatives regularly meet with staff from their respective nations, to share information and work on projects together. They gather information and opinions from students in various Association areas, such as online meet-ups and events, forum chats and social media platforms, which can then be fed back to nations staff to help improve the student experience.

One recent example of how we have worked with the nations to benefit our students, has been to influence public policy that impacts on OU students. I visited Belfast to support the launch of The Open University in Ireland’s The Future is Flexible manifesto for the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections; and in-keeping with our true collaborative style, the Association have launched our own student manifesto for the Northern Ireland elections, which we will be working with staff at the OU’s Belfast office to promote among Assembly candidates with a view to removing barriers and improving the OU student experience.

I was honoured to be invited to speak in support of the University’s manifesto at the launch event at Stormont (where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits). It was great to be able to speak to OU staff, students and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) at the event about how part-time and supported distance learning can be made more accessible through the policy changes that both we at the Association, and the OU in Ireland, are pushing for. Here are some of my comments from the speech:

“The Open University’s manifesto has a very clear focus on flexibility. That’s something that all OU students value about the OU but would like to see embedded in legislation so that the barriers to studying later in life, or alongside other commitments, are removed.

In particular, part-time and supported distance-learning students get a raw deal when it comes to student finance. We want OU students in Northern Ireland to have parity of esteem with full-time students, which is why we will be supporting the OU in asking the next Northern Ireland Assembly to make the Maintenance Loan, the Special Support Grant, the Childcare grant, and the Parental Learning Allowance available to part-time students.

We’ve seen the benefit of such changes over recent years in Wales, where the question of whether to begin or continue on a part-time qualification is now much less concerned with whether you can afford to or not.

We want the Assembly members to expand their definition of what a student is. Not all students are aged between 18 and 22, having just left school. We come in all forms, all ages, all backgrounds, and all kinds of different circumstances and challenges. Making education more flexible and accessible will help students, universities, and the wider economy to adapt and succeed in an increasingly unpredictable world.”

Sarah Jones, OU Students Association President

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