In January, I drove from Cardiff for two hours through wind, sleet and snow to attend a Wales TUC meeting in Aberystwyth. I didn't mind the tortuous journey, because I probably have the best job in the Open University working with incredible Union Learning Representatives (ULRs), trades unions and good employers across Wales.
At the meeting, I had one of my regular slots at the quarterly Wales TUC union learning rep (ULR) network meetings. They take place across the whole of Wales, from Bangor on the North Wales coast, through to places like Newtown in rural mid-Wales and down to Swansea and Cardiff in South Wales – all ably organised by Bernice Waugh at Wales TUC.
At the meetings, I am able to talk about the new Open University free learning opportunities available on OpenLearn, the latest free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on FutureLearn and new OU courses. As well as showing extracts from courses I usually give a "heads-up" on forthcoming OU programmes on the BBC – on television and radio. My role there is not to "sell" any OU courses, it's just an opportunity to have a nice chat about people's needs and how we or other providers might help.
The best part of the meetings for me is listening to ULR updates from the various workplaces. They highlight the amazing learning programmes they organise and signpost, the challenges they face and also explain what's actually going on in workplaces rather than what the papers say. The Wales TUC also gets a wide range of learning providers and organisations along and it's always fascinating to hear about new developments and opportunities.
The "proof of the pudding" of the effectiveness of the OU's long term work with the unions is how well our social partnership approach has worked. Since 2007, over 1500 union supported learners have studied with the OU in Wales, and over the last few years, we have seen many more union learners use the free learning opportunities from OpenLearn and FutureLearn to see if university level learning is for them – or not – with the barrier of cost removed. The OU and Unison received the Times Higher Education Award for Widening Access in the workplace and the OU in Wales was the first university to receive the Wales TUC Quality Award.
A week after my snowy journey, I was talking to HR managers from across the UK at a conference in London on how to build better working relationships with their unions. I had to tell them the learning agenda was a great place to start, but it had to be based on genuine partnerships and a long-term approach. I used quite a few case-studies from across the UK to show it can work in any sector or workplace if there is a real commitment to make it happen on both sides.
So, all in all, yes, I am sure I have the best job in the OU – but don't tell my boss!