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Calls for the introduction of a Lifelong Learning Bill and increased support for part-time students in new manifesto by The Open University in Northern Ireland

Megan Fearon, Policy Manager, and John D'Arcy, Director of the OU in Ireland, holding a sign reading 'The Future is Flexible'

On the 22 March 2022, The Open University launched its vision for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The manifesto, entitled ‘The Future is Flexible’ calls for the embedding of a culture of lifelong learning in society with part-time, flexible higher education at its heart.

The only university in Northern Ireland dedicated to supported distance learning, The Open University (OU) has over 5,500 students across Northern Ireland. Committed to opening up education and lifelong learning to all, the manifesto makes three key asks of the Northern Ireland Assembly:

  • A statutory right to lifelong learning
  • A sustainable and equitable funding model for part-time students
  • The prioritisation of investment in future and green skills.

In a bid to encourage the Northern Ireland Assembly to remove barriers to lifelong learning, the proposal calls for the introduction of a Lifelong Learning Bill; the development of a maintenance support model that works for part-time learners and a ring-fenced skills fund that prioritises investment to close skills gaps and build a greener economy.

One student who understands just how life changing access to lifelong learning can be is Rasha, a Syrian refugee who lives in Northern Ireland. For Rasha, a university education was a dream until she saw an advert for The Open University’s Community Partnerships Project. She began her return to learning on an access course with the OU through her local women’s centre and is now a studying a Bsc in Computing and Information Technology. “With organizing the time between my commitments and studying I can fit my studies around my life,” Rasha explains. “The flexibility that the OU offers students is very helpful so I can study whenever I can, not at a specific time.

“During my studying at the OU I gained skills and experiences like academic writing, organising my time and tasks and most importantly improving my English language. Studying at the OU boosted my confidence and I discovered that I have high determination to achieve my personal goals despite some obstacles.”

Dr Caoimhe Archibald MLA, Economy Committee Chairperson who sponsored the event at Stormont Buildings said: "I welcome the publication of The Open University's vision.  Education must be accessible and inclusive; this needs to be at the heart of policy-making if we are to address the skills and labour shortages in our economy.

“A culture of lifelong learning and flexibility are key to delivering on our skills ambition.  Part time education pathways are also crucial to removing barriers in access to education, and The Open University has been to the fore on this for many years.”

Also speaking at the launch, Megan Fearon, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for The Open University in Northern Ireland said: "I'm proud to publish The Open University's manifesto for the incoming Northern Ireland Assembly. ‘The future is flexible’ is a progressive, student focussed vision for part-time education.

“Flexible and accessible part-time education is the solution to many of the challenges facing our society and economy, including tackling poverty and disadvantage, addressing the climate emergency, and filling local skills gaps and labour shortages. I look forward to working with MLAs to advance these policy proposals."

Summarising the importance of a focus on part-time, flexible higher education, John D’Arcy, Director of The Open University in Ireland said: “The Open University aims to open up education and lifelong learning to everyone, and to be a movement for change.

“The 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections will lead us to a new mandate and Programme for Government. The next few years will be crucial in shaping our economy and building a stronger, more inclusive society. It is in that spirit that I am proud to present our manifesto for the Northern Ireland Assembly election and I urge all political parties to take our asks on board.”

‘The Future is Flexible’ manifesto can be accessed here.

A picture of Christine Murphy who has fair curly hair and is smiling and wearing a white jumper

For media enquiries please contact:

Christine Murphy, Communications Manager

Tel 028 9053 6219