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Open University South West engages with Unions to promote progression to HE


Trades Unions and the Open University share a common mission to support lifelong learning and achieve social justice. Unionlearn and the Open University (OU) established a national partnership in 2006 that has already helped more than 3000 union members to take a higher education course. However, in the South West there has not to date been as significant an uptake as in London and more industrialised regions, though with WVLLN support, this picture is now changing.


OUSW is keen that the outcomes of the WVLLN–funded project will be sustainable, and so aims to work with intermediaries to increase their awareness and understanding of higher learning and, in particular, what the OU can offer. In this case, the key people are Union Leaning representatives (ULRs) who are directly in touch with potential learners in their workplace.   Working together, Union Learning Representatives and the Open University staff can help people overcome barriers, such as lack of confidence to take up a course, finding time and funding for study and tackling lack of employer support. ULRs recognise that these barriers apply to learning at all levels and the OU, with its open access policy, has uniquely strong support mechanisms in place to encourage progression into learning at Level 4 and above.   ULRs are trained volunteers who negotiate with employers to create the climate for learning, actively engage and motivate members, set up learning opportunities with providers, give a basic level of IAG and support and encourage learners to take their first steps. ).  Up to now, the emphasis for ULR activity has been on people achieving level 2 as a foundation for further progression. ULRs attend a 5 day initial training course organised by Unionlearn; some Unions, such as UNISON, organise their own courses. Following this they are encouraged to undertake regular updating and further CPD.  


Unionlearn SW promoted the opportunity to attend a “Supporting Learners into Higher Learning” course in London.  However, with added impetus from the WVLLN project, demand was so great that Unionlearn SW was able instead to run a pilot “intensive” version the course in May in Bristol. 14 ULRs and Union Learning Organisers attended from Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Unite, Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Communication Workers Union (CWU) representing various public and private sector workplaces with significant numbers of staff that are relatively “HE-ready”. Unionlearn Regional Development worker Alan Shearn was delighted with the uptake for the course, which he feels was very timely, especially for public sector unions whose members may feel more urgent need to upskill or reskill with threatened cuts. We now aim to follow up the ULRs to find out how they are planning to implement what they learned in their own workplaces and how we can work together.


ULRs also approached the OU to contribute to Learning at Work events that they organised in work time. ULRs were offered a menu of options from the OU  so the events were all different, according to the resources and time available, and were attended by over 100 potential learners in late May. An introduction to the OU course “You and your money” proved very thought- provoking and popular, particularly with younger staff employed in Benefits Offices and Job Centres and we look forward to welcoming some as enrolled learners on this 30 credit OU first level course in October.  The taster and advice sessions gave an opportunity for ULRs, their employers and members to find out not only about whether OU study might be right for them,  but also about the huge range of free online resources on,;  and


We now need to consolidate the relationships and to focus effort where it will be most effective. Lois Thorn, the project officer leading the work at the OUSW, is confident that conditions are right for seeds planted now to grow and develop in various ways. She commented “The commitment of ULRs to the success of their individual members and the organisations they work for is really impressive. The ULRs we have met are enthusiastic about the OU, curious to find out more and very responsive, despite many competing pressures on their time.  I really look forward to working with them and with Unionlearn colleagues during the remaining months of the WVLLN project.”


For more information contact l.m.thorn

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