Government funds Open University to open courses in higher education ‘cold spots’

Ministers say the £10m fund should support the distance learning university to support 10 to 12 FE colleges in England develop HE courses

With £10 million, the government has funded the Open University to “plug higher education cold spots” with distance learning courses offered through colleges across England.

Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education, announced the scheme on 25 May – but few details are publicly available.

The Open University (OU) – already the largest UK university by student enrolments by quite some margin – will receive the multi-million-pound government fund to develop higher technical education with “around 10-12 further education providers” in England over three years.

Courses will be “shorter than a traditional three-year degree, offering a mix of blended, face-to-face and online learning”, a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) said.

The OU will instruct the establishment of new courses in FE colleges – and help expand higher education in regions with shortages. Partnerships will either be collaborative delivery or validation models.

Ministers say this approach gives would-be students the assurance that courses will be overseen by an experienced HE provider and delivered flexibly by a local institution.

The dedicated OU website page informs bidders: “Details of how the scheme will work, and which colleges and programmes will be eligible are still being finalised.” The DfE said the OU particularly welcomes interest from colleges in education investment areas or areas with relatively few adults with higher-level qualifications. Successful FE bidders will be named in the autumn.

The government is pursuing legislation to introduce a Lifelong Learning Entitlement – another aspect of its strategy to boost the number of adults with higher-level qualifications. A consultation on its plans closed earlier this month.

The government said work was underway to publish “high-quality and accessible data on jobs and skills” through the new Unit for Future Skills, to help adults and businesses “make informed decisions”. Some data was released today. One dashboard details average earnings for employees with different qualifications in all sectors of the economy.

Donelan said the announcement “marks a new era for higher education” as funding targets “cold spots across the country, so everyone can upskill wherever they live”.

Skills minister Alex Burghart said the new data “shows which courses and training pathways offer the best route into a specific sector, making it easier for people to see where their training can take them”. It marked, he said, “the first step in the Future Skills Unit plan to transform the quality and accessibility of the information available”.

The Office for Students has been appointed to work with the OU as it develops the scheme. Susan Lapworth, interim OfS chief executive, said it was the “first step in the OfS’s work to shape the validation system to ensure it works effectively to extend student choice”.

Read more: Lifelong learning entitlement should be 50% bigger, says commission

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