Written evidence submitted by the Open University in Scotland (USC0005)


House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee: Universities and Scotland Inquiry


Executive Summary:


1.      The OU operates across all four nations of the UK and is a global provider of high-quality, supported online distance learning.


2.      The Open University (OU) in Scotland receives its main teaching grant and other funding streams from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). We are funded on student numbers at completion rather than registration, unlike other higher education institutes (HEIs). The teaching grant received is directly linked to number of students successfully completing OU modules.


3.      We welcome the current review being undertaken by SFC into the provision and delivery of teaching and research activity across the colleges and universities.


4.      The key areas that we believe the SFC review will need to address are as follows:




5.      The OU operates across all four nations of the UK and is a global provider of high-quality, supported online distance learning. We welcome the opportunity to provide the Scottish Affairs Committee with further information on how we are funded, including some of the funding challenges and opportunities we face – both before and during the current pandemic.


6.      The OU in Scotland is committed to supporting Scotland in an inclusive economic recovery. There is already growing evidence that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the most disadvantaged people in Scotland[1] and it is vital that there remains a strong commitment to widening access to higher education in ensuring inequalities in society are not worsened.


7.      The current SFC model supports the modular nature of our offer, allowing students to put together programmes of study that best suit their individual needs, skill levels and future aspirations. Our students have the option of studying for a single module or take a set of modules that combine to give a certificate, diploma, undergraduate or postgraduate qualification. This flexibility also allows students to transfer their credit between institutions. This is different to the situation in England where OU students only attract funding if they are studying towards a qualification.


8.      As a result, there has been a sharp fall in the number of mature students accessing higher education in England. Scotland has a mature student undergraduate entry rate of 7.9 per 1,000 (21-64 year olds), which is 54% higher than in England[2].


9.      As Scotland’s leading provider in flexible learning and with a national reach through our supported online delivery model, we believe that the SFC model can be further enhanced and with proper funding in place The OU in Scotland would play an integral role in supporting economic recovery and supporting people in accessing educational opportunities to reskill, upskill to retain and re-enter employment, along with meeting the needs of the future economy.


10.  We have focused this submission on the Committee’s first question setting out how we are currently funded for the learning and teaching of students resident in Scotland.



Q1 The scale and nature of challenges and opportunities around funding for Scottish universities:


11.  Since 2000, The OU in Scotland has received its main teaching grant and other funding streams from SFC. We are funded on student numbers at completion rather than, as other HEIs are, at registration. As a result, all teaching grant received from SFC is directly linked to number of students successfully completing OU modules.


12.  We welcome the current review commissioned by the Scottish Government and being undertaken by SFC into the provision and delivery of teaching and research activity across the colleges and universities, including how the sector is funded in the future. Taking place over three phases, the review will look at the full range of options for securing the future sustainability of both the higher and further education sectors, including consideration of the current systems of funding so that resources are provided at the appropriate level to ensure the sustainability of provision for both teaching and research.


         Increasing demand and widening access


13.  The OU has always had an open entry policy that supports students to study with us at undergraduate level with no requirement for previous qualifications, and The OU in Scotland is proud to be ‘Scotland’s national widening access university’.


14.  In 2019/20, around 19% of our undergraduate entrants were from the most deprived Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) quintile and nearly 40% came from the two most deprived quintiles – exceeding SFC’s national aspirations for widening access for 2021. Among our latest intake of students, 24% have declared a disability. We believe that The OU in Scotland can play a crucial role in helping support some of those most disadvantaged during the pandemic through widening access.


15.  Alongside widening access, the OU in Scotland is also carrying out important work to close the attainment gap. We ensure that once students start studying they receive support, information, advice and guidance – both academic and non-academic – that helps them to succeed in reaching their potential and fulfilling their ambitions during their studies.


16.  We offer a unique model of Associate Lecturers, many of whom work in business and industry, or other higher or further education settings. Students are assigned a personal tutor for each module to help guide them through their studies and module materials, mark assignments and give tailored feedback, and prepare them for any assessments. Tutorials are set up by tutors on the module and can be online, face-to-face, or a mixture of both, while some online tutorials may be recorded to watch later. Tutors are easily contactable via email and phone, and there are module discussion groups for students to connect with each other.


17.  Our Student Support Teams further ensure students have access to specialist advisers if they experience any problems during their studies. Further support is provided to students with disabilities or additional needs during their studies.


18.  However, we need to be funded properly to provide that vital support going forward. Pre-COVID the demand from students was already far outstripping the places The OU in Scotland receives teaching grant for. Demand to study with us has increased by over 50% since 2013 and we currently deliver to over 18,000 students across Scotland.


19.  Rather than being funded at registration like other universities, the teaching grant we receive is based on an aggregate number of students (measured in FTE) who successfully complete our modules in that year. This is a consequence of the OU’s flexible open entry access policy. For those students who do not complete in the year, the university receives only the module fee.  


20.  In 2019/20, this means we are supporting over 2,000 FTE student places in Scotland where we will receive only module fees and no teaching grant. This results in an equivalent funding gap of £10 million.


21.  We have experienced sustained growth in student numbers since 2014/15 and, at the time of writing, we are seeing further growth and a considerable surge in our intake of new students in 2020/21. The OU can continue to meet this demand in Scotland, but we need to be adequately funded to do this.


         Agile and flexible learning


22.  The OU in Scotland has been able to rapidly respond in supporting economic recovery during the pandemic through its online platforms and flexible learning opportunities.


23.  We have seen demand for flexible and part-time learning opportunities greatly exceed the places available, particularly concerning skills gap areas. To help support employees who were furloughed and facing redundancy as a result of COVID-19, we offered free places through the SFC Upskilling Fund on a new Coding Skills course to upskill and reskill people for digital roles and careers.


24.  Working with Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Partnership Action for Continuing Employment (PACE), we actively promoted the course to those in the sectors most likely to be impacted by the pandemic, including hospitality, retail, travel and tourism, and manufacturing.


25.  We experienced huge demand for this course – with 675 applications for the original 40 places, which was later increased to 55.


26.  The SFC may want to consider making upskilling a longer-term funded stream or part of core funding – viewed not just in terms of postgraduate provision but also undergraduate, access and non-SCQF accredited provision.


27.  We believe that part-time study and flexible work-based education initiatives will play an important role in helping economic recovery and ensuring skills gaps are filled to support the future economy. The OU in Scotland can deliver many of these opportunities due to its national reach and expertise in online education.


28.  Before the pandemic, The OU in Scotland was already working with organisations and trade unions to support employees facing redundancy to learn new skills to increase their employment opportunities. The Michelin case study below helps to demonstrate the essential support the OU in Scotland is able to provide employees who need to reskill due to redundancy.


Case Study: Michelin redundancy support


A pilot project by the OU in Scotland provided redundancy support to 850 staff at the international Michelin tyre plant in Dundee after it announced it would be closed in 2020.


The OU in Scotland worked sensitively with factory managers, unions and other partners in the city to develop a skills employability package for Michelin’s workforce and their families to help accelerate alternative employment opportunities and strengthen the employment potential of family units.


Support included developing a dedicated learning portal for Michelin staff, access to OU advisors, support on course choices, and a range of free badged open courses specifically focused on core skills such as digital, smart cities, renewable energy and entrepreneurship.


Donald Mackenzie, former Head of Personnel at Michelin Dundee, said: “The Open University were able to offer our employees a number of different flexible learning options. People really appreciated the breadth of studies and the type of learning that was on offer... Many remarked on how motivated they were by what was being offered. For many it was a long gap since their last piece of formal education.”


“I would encourage other employers to give their workforce access to the Open University – both during difficult times and as routine. The offering and approach that they have is comprehensive, engaging and relevant for today’s workforce.”


Over the course of the programme, the workforce was able to find new employment in Dundee and surrounding areas. This has included workers gaining the skills needed to gain employment in the new Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc on the factory site, which will focus on sustainable transport and low carbon energy, while Balhousie Care Group has employed a number of former Michelin staff after they gained social care skills through the OU programme.


         Parity for part-time students


29.  The OU in Scotland has recently received enquiries from part-time students looking for greater support after changes in their circumstances due to the pandemic. A renewed focus is needed on ensuring that part-time study is treated on an equitable basis with full-time study, including an urgent need to review maintenance support in line with changes made in Wales to give part-time students access to a Welsh Government Learning Grant and Maintenance Loan to help with living costs while studying[3].


30.  The Part-time Fee Grant has been hugely successful in widening access to higher education, but the level of the grant has remained the same for many years.


31.  We believe that there needs to be greater flexibility concerning the income and credit threshold for the Part-time Free Grant currently set at annual income of £25,000 or below and 30 credits – to support shorter, more skills-focused courses to be studied, to allow people to reskill, upskill and return to the workplace.


         Move away from the default position of viewing higher education as school leavers transitioning to full-time university


32.  We believe that SFC and the sector should move away from a default position of viewing higher education as the transition of school leavers into full-time university and instead adopt a wider view of the diversity of learners and their needs in Scotland.


33.  It is our experience that many of our students do not follow a single linear learner journey and instead choose to go to college first or pursue higher education at a later stage, perhaps due to work or family commitments, or financial reasons. This will be even more applicable in the post-pandemic environment as people return to study in order to gain new skills and improve eligibility for new employment opportunities, and in supporting the future economy.


34.  We have a close working relationship with colleges across Scotland and have active partnerships with 15 of them to support college students with Higher National Certificate (HNC) or Higher National Diploma (HND) to get the appropriate credit transfer onto our Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science (Open) degrees through articulation pathways. At present more than 900 HN students each year choose to take the next step towards a degree with the OU.


35.  Building directly on the HN study the student has undertaken, we offer routes to a range of degree programmes in specific subjects, such as social work, health and social care, adult nursing, computing and IT, and engineering. The University’s unique Open Degree is also available for all HN students, regardless of the qualification they have studied at college, allowing them to gain credit for previous study, whilst building a degree programme more tailored to their own pathway development needs, or the needs of their employer.


36.  The OU in Scotland has worked in partnership with Ayrshire, City of Glasgow, Fife, and North East Scotland Colleges to create campus-based models of delivery, which provide students in these colleges with the opportunity to articulate to an OU degree with tutorials delivered within the familiar environment of their local college. We have also successfully integrated OU modules into Dundee and Angus College’s wider access programme.


37.  We are keen to support colleges in their aspirations to grow their portfolio of vocationally relevant higher education programmes and see potential in building partnerships that involve OU validation of college programmes, content licensing and partnering with colleges in the development and delivery of Graduate Apprenticeships.


         Review of Graduate Apprenticeships


38.  The OU in Scotland would support a review of the way Graduate Apprenticeships are currently funded to introduce part-time and flexible opportunities, including allowing breaks in learning rather than having to leave the apprenticeship programme and rejoin later on.


39.  The current annual bid structure makes it hard to forward plan and, combined with the small cohorts available and lack of development funding available, means it is difficult for institutions to achieve an efficient return on investment.


40.  We support the need for a broader range of Graduate Apprenticeship frameworks that reflect the post-pandemic skills needs and support the needs of SMEs, the public and third sectors (e.g. social work, policing, nursing and management at postgraduate level).

         International connectedness


41.  There are lessons we can take from the pandemic about the many forms international connectedness can take, not only international students coming to Scotland but also students studying with Scottish HEIs on international campuses and studying with Scottish universities online. The OU has over 7,000 international students throughout Europe and worldwide and many more studying our courses through our partnerships and accredited institutions.


42.  More than 1,200 OU students are serving members of the British armed forces and the Merchant Navy. Through an agreement between the Ministry of Defence and the OU going back to the early 1970s, a wide range of courses are available, with course materials supplied via the student’s BFPO address. Many have studied while on active service, even in conflict situations. 


43.  The OU also jointly owns the innovative online platform, FutureLearn, with the SEEK Group. FutureLearn provides a diverse selection of short courses in partnership with top international universities and specialist organisations, and has attracted over 12 million learners from around the world since it was founded in 2013.



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October 2020



[1] https://www.gov.scot/publications/equality-fairer-scotland-impact-assessment-evidence-gathered-scotlands-route-map-through-out-crisis/pages/4/

[2] Data provided by The OU

[3] https://gov.wales/student-finance-higher-education/part-time-undergraduates