Transforming lives and making the impossible, possible

Hannah Sargeant, planetary scientist and PhD student, features in the OU
Hannah Sargeant, planetary scientist and PhD student, features in the OU's 50th Anniversary photography collection by Chris Floyd.

In April 1969, The Open University (OU) received its Royal Charter and the vision of a “university of the air” was brought to life – a university that would open up education for all. This was largely due to the personal determination of the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and the commitment of his Minister of Arts, Jennie Lee.

Based at Walton Hall in Milton Keynes, the OU extends across the four nations of the UK, with alumni stretching over 157 countries across the globe. Since 1969, more than two million people have come through the OU’s virtual doors. From 24,000 in the first intake in 1971, the OU currently has over 174,000 students.

Key partner for employers addressing the skills gap

No prior qualifications are needed for most OU courses – widening access to higher education to self-motivated and determined people who want to progress in their career. The University has a strong pedigree and heritage in working with employers to re-train and upskill staff – making the OU a key partner for employers looking to address skills gaps.

The University currently works with almost 2,500 organisations who sponsor staff through their studies. The OU’s flexible, blended learning is the perfect model to address recruitment and retention challenges, such as the shortage of NHS nurses. An impressive 78 of the FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff with the OU​ as it continues to play a key role in a wide range of sectors.

Since 2016, the University has offered higher and degree apprenticeships. These work-based programmes allow employers to draw upon apprenticeship levy funds to develop both new and existing staff.

More vital than its founders could ever have imagined

As part of the OU's birthday celebrations, the University has created a special 50th Anniversary Scholarships Fund to give disabled veterans, carers and other vulnerable people the opportunity to transform their lives through education.

Up to one in five veterans are discharged due to disabilities. The University's Disabled Veterans' Scholarships Fund is there to support these veterans and allow them to study a variety of OU courses for free, including introductory access modules up to undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications. The Fund is the first of its kind in the UK and in addition to scholarships, students will also receive specialist disability support and careers advice.

Life-changing opportunities

Carers are another group the University is supporting with a new fund to provide 50 scholarships. There are an estimated seven million individuals in the UK providing unpaid care for a family member or friend with an illness, disability, mental health condition or an addiction. The support given by these carers includes tasks such as helping their loved one to communicate or helping them in and out of bed. They may do the cooking and household jobs or look after their younger siblings. The tasks that they perform can be unexpected and difficult to plan around; disrupting their everyday lives and leaving them exhausted.

Unsurprisingly, carers find engaging with higher education difficult. Young adult carers (aged 14-25) have lower GCSE attainment and are twice as likely as their peers to be NEET (not in employment, education or training) for six months or more. Older carers may wish to develop their careers, through education, while balancing work and caring. The practicalities of studying can be difficult for carers of any age who often feel guilty about going to university or find it difficult to stick to a timetable because of their responsibilities.

Looking to the next 50 years

Fifty years on, The Open University is a world away from where it began. However, its principles and mission - to be open to people, places, methods and ideas - continue to drive everything that they do.

To learn more about The Open University during its 50th year, including events across the UK, please visit 50.open.ac.uk