Thursday, 6 June 2013

The real thing – lifelong learning in action

Degree ceremonies are always inspiring – it is wonderful to see the pride and confidence on the face of a student who has achieved what they set out to do and get the recognition they deserve. It was both a privilege and an honour for me to be invited as a guest of honour to attend an Open University East of England degree ceremony last Saturday at Ely Cathedral.

The sun shone on the day, and the setting and the music in the Cathedral was exceptionally beautiful. The big difference between this presentation of degrees and a traditional degree ceremony is that the students represent all age groups – from those in their 20's to the third and fourth age. You can see lifelong learning in front of your eyes.

David Puttnam (Lord Puttnam of Queensgate), the OU's Chancellor, chaired the event and started the ceremony by recognising the support the students had received from their families and friends. All students need support of course, but students who are combining their studies with family and work responsibilities need an extra helping! David Puttnam showed that he understood and valued the exceptional levels of motivation, self discipline and sheer hard work evidenced by the achievements of these students.

My organisation, the National Extension College (NEC), was set up 50 years ago in 1963 as a precursor to the Open University which followed 6 years later. Both organisations can be credited with pioneering new and innovative ways of flexible learning, and have a mission to open up access to learning for everyone, whatever their background or personal circumstances.

The NEC specialises in providing courses at pre-university level for people who want to re-equip themselves for new roles and new interests, and for the increasing numbers of young learners who are being educated at home, while the OU mainly works at degree level. Our learners often move and progress between the two institutions. Both the OU and NEC are proudly 'second chance' organisations dedicated to students who have missed out first time round and need a second, third or even a fourth chance.

One reason why I am so committed to the mission and the work of the NEC and the OU is that I was a second chance learner myself – I went to university as a mature student and the experience transformed my life completely. The need to keep open access routes to education and opportunities for continuous lifelong learning is even greater now than it was when the NEC and the OU were set up on the 60’s.

Lifelong learning is needed now more than ever, because we are seeing that increased university tuition fees are leading to falling applications, therefore more people will want to consider higher education later in life, and a narrowing of the secondary curriculum from September 2014 will result in pupils now and as adults wanting to explore the subjects they missed out on at school.

The graduates at the OU ceremony on June 1st are living evidence of this and I add my respect and congratulations to all of them, and also to Professor Jean Bacon, Professor of Distributed Systems at the University of Cambridge, who was awarded an Honorary Degree by the OU for academic and scholarly distinction.

Ros Morpeth
Chief Executive, National Extension College

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