Hats off to them

The UK‘s largest academic institution is celebrating its 50th birthday. Founded in 1969, the Open University delivers flexible distance-learning opportunities to about 9,000 people in Wales.

Here two of its alumni share their stories, and explain how the OU transformed their lives for the better.

Mine of information

One of the very first students to join the OU in Wales was Dr John Evans from Ammanford, who completed his first degree while working at the Cwmgwili Colliery in Carmarthenshire in the early 1970s.

He has since gone on to complete four degrees with the OU in Wales and a doctorate with Swansea University. His qualifications have enabled him to become a teacher, lecturer and writer.

“I‘m often asked what a university education has done for me,” said John. “My response is that it has provided me with a view of the world that an ordinary working-class man such as myself might not have had otherwise.”

So how did John, who left school aged 16 to work at the coal mine, come across this life-changing opportunity?

“I was about a mile and a half underground in Cwmgwili Colliery, and the National Coal Board was producing a paper called Coal News. I just happened to read it while I was having lunch. I cut the piece of paper out and submitted it to the Open University, and was accepted immediately.

“In my first session everyone went around introducing themselves and there were architects, teachers and the like. To this day I vividly remember how everyone stared at me as I said ‘John, coal miner‘.

And as for the other men who he worked with in the pit at the time?

“They didn‘t know that I was studying for a degree until I‘d done about three or four courses with the Open University.

In terms of why he decided to pursue a degree initially, John said: “What I saw was a situation where people were being injured and, worse still, killed. I thought to myself, there must be a better life than this. During the period I worked in the coal industry – 20 years – I lost 12 of my friends.

“Believe it or not, I equate the creation of the Open University with the creation of the NHS in 1948 and how much it‘s made a difference. It has changed my life considerably.”

Armed with knowledge

Cardiff-born Felix Asare-Donkoh gained his BEng (Engineering) Honours Degree remotely while stationed away from home.

Felix, who had to waterproof his books so he could continue to study in challenging conditions, said of his experience: “What I‘ve achieved would have been impossible without The OU. The flexibility and support they offered me meant I didn‘t have to choose between my career and my education.

“Because of that I was able to get hands-on, practical experience in the armed forces that has been incredibly relevant to my degree. It was tough at times, but every minute of hard work was worth it.”

Louise Casella, director of the Open University in Wales, said: “John and Felix are just two of the amazing graduates to have studied with the Open University in Wales.

“As well as looking back and celebrating all of those who have shaped the OU into what it is today, we‘re also looking forward to the future and how we can continually innovate and provide open learning opportunities to all.”