As the OU Students Association Area Representative for Scotland, I get to know a lot of the different experiences OU students in Scotland face while trying to obtain qualifications. One of the things you realise quickly is that there is no such thing as a typical OU student. We come from a variety of backgrounds – educationally, culturally, and socially. Some want to change career or get a promotion whereas others study just for fun.
It’s great that all of these people with different circumstances and different motivations have accessed higher education through the OU in Scotland. There are over 20,000 of us north of the border now. But I believe there could be more if the Scottish government made it easier for people to access part-time education. That’s why the OU Students Association’s manifesto for the Scottish Parliament Elections is focused on removing the barriers that prevent people from being able to study.
In particular, disabled students face a hugely burdensome bureaucratic application process in order to obtain the support they require to study.
The process is complex and overwhelming for individuals with certain conditions, and almost certainly puts some off from taking up university places they have been offered. It is also slow and often leaves disabled students behind with their studies through no fault of their own. That’s why we want the disabled student finance system to be reformed to address these issues.
We are also asking for parity of status for part-time students in Scotland in relation to student finance and childcare. Maintenance loans and access to the Childcare Fund will make a huge difference to those for whom financial circumstances are a barrier to accessing qualifications. The assumption that part-time students are wealthy because they work alongside their studies is outdated and inaccurate, demonstrated by the fact that 72% of new undergraduates earn less than £25,000 per year, and 19% of new undergraduates are from the most deprived quintile (data from 2019/20 academic year).
Additionally, like the rest of the UK and the world, the COVID19 pandemic has brought into focus the importance of connectivity in order for the world to keep functioning and so that people can more easily access opportunities, such as new qualifications. Poor broadband speeds are a major hindrance to educational outcomes, and this is not a new development during the pandemic. The next Scottish government must prioritise ensuring all communities in Scotland have access to high-speed broadband so that those who have lost careers during the lockdowns can retrain, upskill and get back to work.
Finally, nobody’s background, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, or disability should determine their ability to enter higher education or their likelihood of succeeding.
This is a principle of the Open University and is strongly supported by the OU Students Association. But in spite of that, wider systemic issues mean that individuals from certain groups are less likely to go to university and when they do, are less likely to achieve a higher grade. We, therefore, want to work with the next Scottish Government to better understand the barrier that causes these outcomes with a view to removing them.
There are OU students in every Scottish Parliament constituency, which makes us a potentially highly influential voice in the debate around higher education policy in Scotland. So if your local candidates come to your door, or phone you up to ask for your support, make sure you quiz them on their views on part-time and distance-learning student issues and point them towards our manifesto if you can.
Visit oustudents.com/Scotland to read the manifesto and to find out more about registering to vote and getting involved.