In her Nobel Lecture, Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai stressed that “education is one of the blessings of life – and one of its necessities”.
Yet even in a developed nation such as the UK, there remain barriers to be overcome in accessing the transformative power of learning. Despite the obstacles, every day countless students across the UK succeed against the odds.
Take one young man I came across recently – let’s call him Jack – written off at school and leaving with nothing more than a bad reputation. Ten years on and that same young man, encouraged by someone who cared, did a short access course with The Open University and changed his life.
Having since graduated with a first class degree, he is aiming for a PhD.
Another young man, William McMaster, tells a similar tale of dropping out of formal education and working in a factory with “no job satisfaction”. A move to the NHS introduced him to Unison and education. Several NVQs and computer courses later he became an OU nursing student and a true advocate of work-based learning.
Most if not all higher education institutions are conscious of the need to encourage and support students from every background, in particular those dealing with a disadvantage.
But making progress with such students, who may have been side-tracked from traditional routes into higher education for reasons of health, personal circumstance or simply a lack of self-esteem, is not something we do alone.
The OU has joined forces with 10 other like-minded organisations to form a Social Partnerships Network, with the aim of forming a united front to help transform as many lives as possible by extending access to higher education among adults who are looking for a second chance.
The partners share common values related to lifelong learning and social mobility, and the belief that even a very small step taken – such as doing a work-based course with unionLearn or a creative workshop with the Workers’ Educational Association - is a step in the right direction.
The network promotes a supportive pathway, one which can turn the casual learner into a certificate, diploma or degree-holding success story.
If encouraging study in this way can change the life of an individual, it also benefits the wider economy, which usually ensures that politicians sit up and take note.
Liam Byrne, the Labour shadow minister for universities, science and skills, highlighted the power of collaboration when he set out his vision for higher education in the pages of Times Higher Education last year, referring to the “new workplace partnerships between workers’ education organisations”. Since it came to power in 2010, the coalition government has focused on expanding adult apprenticeships, with the number doubling since 2010 to 1.6 million new starters, and a significant increase among older age groups.
In its 2015 manifesto, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education calls for a “new localism” in education pathways which integrates skills with economic growth strategies and provides leadership through Local Economic Partnerships and combined authorities.
The value of social partnerships is that the collective knowledge, drive and visibility they represent can make a real difference and expand the horizons of adults who have under-estimated their potential. We may not all face the same challenges as young women like Malala, but her brave and inspiring stance serves to remind us that there is no limit to educational ambition.