The OU's degree ceremonies have started in earnest, kicking off at London's Barbican recently. Peter Horrocks, the OU's Vice-Chancellor, shares his experiences and explains why they give an opportunity to both celebrate and strengthen our resolve...
"They start off quietly. A few early birds arrive for the ceremony, nervously checking the logistics and where to get their gowns. Soon the place is alive with crowds, chattering voices and excited families all gathered to mark this momentous day in the lives of our OU degree recipients.
Degree ceremonies at the OU never fail to inspire. You only have to look around you to see examples of how thousands have benefited from studying the OU-way.
Parents with young children in tow, tugging at their gowns eager to run off somewhere else; graduates with partners or by themselves raising a glass to how they somehow managed to juggle full-time work and study to boost their career prospects.
Nathaniel spells it out for us on Instagram saying: "Without this degree I wouldn't have got my current job, which just goes to show The Open University works!" He should know, he picked up a new job in Cisco thanks to his BSc in IT & Computing.
At every ceremony I am struck by an overwhelming feeling of humility and a huge sense of purpose. Some 76% of our students work while they study and we see 23% of our students coming from the 25% of the most deprived areas of the UK.
Many tell of how they started their study later in life or had to pause and then restart when life got in the way. Whilst our quota of disabled students - more than 24,000 - equates to almost the total number of students studying in some other universities. I met just a few of them at the ceremony.
All the graduates have very individual stories, some very memorable. Sarajevo-born Ines, who graduated on Friday 24 March, is just one example.
Make a difference
She survived a harrowing time working as a volunteer interpreter during the Bosnian War which persuaded her to change career later in life and "make a difference". She told us: "During the war I saw a lot of misery, abuse of human rights and I realised I wanted to do something in that field (of aid work). I am not naive enough to think one can make a huge difference but equally one should not sit around and do nothing, even a small difference is worthwhile. That is really what made me decide to go to The Open University."
Ines realised her ambition, thanks to the contacts she made with British volunteers during the war who told her about the OU. Aged 38 she studied for a BSc in International Studies and then a Masters in Development Management and now works full-time in aid management with an NGO.
For many students, like Ines, the OU method of distance learning is crucial and it's an expertise we've gained over almost 50 years. Graduate Jonathan Adams is living proof. He followed in the footsteps of his grandmother, in gaining a degree with the OU. His BA (Hons) in History made his dad and grandad proud too - they have both served as tutors for the university.
The Government's newly announced Industrial Strategy offers a great opportunity for more people to upskill and learn new skills in a UK, post-Brexit.
"Skills for everyone"
Our chancellor Martha Lane-Fox stresses that the OU is a "core" part of that aim, to make sure Britain is "as robust as possible".
She says: "I welcome the Industrial Strategy, but we need to make sure that innovation and digital innovation and, crucially, skills for everyone are at its heart. And that's where the OU can help."
We want to do that, to be that route to better employment prospects. The shocking decline in part-time students - an overall decrease of 30% between 2011/12 and 2015/16 - urgently needs addressing if we're to stand a chance. We hope the Government will take note of our recommendations.
We will welcome more than 8,000 students across the stages of venues right across the UK this year and I want to ensure we continue to do that long into the future.
We also welcome supporters, including our Honorary Graduates, like Brixton Soup Kitchen founder Solomon Smith and actress, writer and director Samantha Morton who told our graduates: "You're amazing, you did it - no matter what was going on for you, you should be proud of yourselves."
I couldn't agree more. Degree ceremonies inspire everyone who attends with a real sense of renewal. But most importantly they enable us to wholeheartedly celebrate our greatest achievement - our students."