The social mission of The Open University (OU) and our fifty years of experience in levelling up education across the UK means we can help to transform lives for the better.

Levelling up, adult learning and retraining are at the core of the UK Government’s priorities to rebuild and recover from COVID-19.  Many areas in the country are still blighted by a lack of opportunity for people to access higher education (so called ‘cold spots’) such as rural areas, coastal towns and ex-coalfield communities.

While we are a nationwide provider, our flexible, scalable learning model is able to deliver education to every region and nation of the UK. Even though we work with employers at a distance, this does not mean we work remotely. We partner with local employers, colleges and universities to provide local people with skills they need to unlock their potential, develop their careers and benefit their communities through a commitment to lifelong learning.

The OU’s local impact can only succeed if we tailor our approach. One size does not fit all and we must be flexible in our offer to different areas and audiences.

We take a strategic approach to how we collaborate locally. The OU takes a microscope to local labour markets, looking at the regional economy, future skill needs and demographics. We then work with local and national governments, regional employers and education providers to help tailor our approach, based on the ‘three Cs’ of contribution, connection, and courses.

Technology also has a role to play. Our expertise in online digital provision allows us to connect communities and offer education in areas that other institutions cannot reach. Our social mission is to open up opportunities for a more diverse range of learners, who otherwise would not be able to access educational opportunities. The OU has 27,237 students who have declared at least one disability and over the last seven years the number of disabled students at the OU has more than trebled. Even before Covid-19, the OU’s virtual presence and ability for our students to study principally online and off-campus has been important in reaching those left behind communities. Importantly this model also fits around both personal and workplace commitments and priorities.

The OU’s focus is to complement the work of universities and colleges in the regions that they operate. For instance, we have teamed up with Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and Leeds Beckett University to launch a new apprenticeship route. This provides the practical skills and qualifications needed to start a new career as a Nursing Associate or Registered Nurse. Students can choose between going to the local university but also have the flexibility to do the courses with the OU.

The ‘new normal’ has created more need for new and exciting corporate partnerships, responding to the fast-changing labour market. We’ve worked with IBM to launch SkillsBuild Reignite this summer. This provides access to free online learning for job seekers, entrepreneurs and small businesses. The platform gives access to hundreds of learning activities designed to help them develop the technical and professional skills needed to reinvent their careers and businesses. To date over 8,000 individuals have registered to access the learning materials.

We ideally want to work in partnership on projects that reflect the openness of the OU, with social mobility being at the heart of what we do. In January, we launched a collaborative programme with Uber that gives eligible drivers or a nominated member of their family, the opportunity to study with us and their fees covered by Uber. So far over 750 learners, from hugely diverse backgrounds, have enrolled from all around the UK. Being able to work and learn flexibly is an essential part of unlocking economic opportunity to new learners who may have previously faced barriers to study.

Levelling up can only succeed through collaboration and organisations working together, rather than in competition. Please do get in touch with the OU if you’d like to discuss how we can work together to build skills in your local area.