In seven years of full-time study in Belfast I never took much interest in student politics, but I broke with habit last week when I attended the Open University Student Association’s biannual conference.
I have been an OU student for a number of years now and cannot speak highly enough of the university. No institution does more to open higher education to all, with 51% of students holding one A-level or fewer, 20% drawn from the most deprived quartile of the UK population and 14,000 declaring a disability.
Clearly, I am not the only student who has enjoyed the experience, as the Open University is ranked number one for student satisfaction in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and number three in England
The high level of tuition fees today means the OU is likely to become more and more attractive to those undertaking their first degree, particularly as part-timers can now take out a student loan for the first time. However, for some other groups the future appears less rosy.
The aversion of governments both red and blue to education for its own sake is also striking the OU, with no support available to individuals seeking a second degree despite a substantial hike in fees in England – thankfully yet to be replicated for Northern Ireland students.
Such a view is short-sighted and ignores the unforeseen or difficult to measure benefits that can flow from education. The Beagle mission to Mars – in which the OU was heavily involved – may not have been launched with any direct benefit to humans other than the expansion of knowledge in mind, but technologies developed are greatly improving air quality on board submarines.
Likewise, the many people who study with the OU throughout their lifetimes may not do so for any reason other than personal interest, but who knows how many find an unanticipated benefit to their career, or the savings to the health service as minds are kept active to an advanced age.
With access to even the most democratic of universities threatening to slip out of reach of many, it is time to demand education as a right – and a lifelong right – for all, not a privilege for some. The argument could be heard from delegates at the OUSA conference; now all of society needs to speak out.