Reflections and speculations from #oer23

I was lucky enough to be in Inverness last week for the #OER23 conference. The OER conferences do have quite unique atmosphere. They are relatively small, and there is always a really strong sense of community. This year was no different, in fact it I think that community sense was even stronger. So before I get into the meat of this post I just want to thank the co-chairs, conference committee, ALT and everyone at UHI for pulling everything together so well.

I’m still processing quite a lot of what I heard over the 2 days of the conference, so this post is really just focusing on one element that has been swirling around my brain. The conference marked 10 years of the Open Scotland Declaration. This was a community driven initiative to try and get the Scottish Government to formally adopt the UNESCO open education . . you can read more here. But the basic premise boils down to publicly funded educational resources should be publicly available. Not rocket science, totally achievable, but so far it has been almost impossible to get the Scottish Government to engage.

Lorna Campbell and Joe Wilson gave an excellent narrative of their stalwart efforts to engage with the Scottish Government over the past decade. There were many discussions and ideas about what should be done next. Based on some thoughts from the first key note from Rikke Toft Nørgård which looked at hybrid futures, I thought I’d take a bit of a speculative futures approach to Open Scotland. I also have to thank my Bill Johnston for a few ideas during a 3 hour car drive home. Spoiler alert, I haven’t done this before so it might be pants! But here goes . . .

The year is 2043. Scotland is celebrating 10 years of independence. The year has been badged as “Scotland, open for the world”. Celebrations officially started on April 6 – a nod to the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, the original document asserting Scotland’s right as an independent country. International events during the year include the opening of new UNESCO centre for open knowledge and policy development. COP 47 is returning to Glasgow to showcase how Scotland has exceeded the targets set in 2022, and has worked with 73% of all the signatories to every COP agreement since 2033 to develop sustainable and equitable energy solutions.

Scotland officially rejoined the EU in 2039, but between times has struck a number of international partnership agreements including a new Nordic alliance on knowledge exchange and sustainable energy, tourism and creative cultural developments. In a recent international survey on the best places to live, Scotland (for the 5th year running) came in at number 1. This was due mainly to the health and happiness of the population, not on property values. Scotland’s unique approach to education was seen to be at the centre of a remarkable evolution of a relatively small (by size of population), and newly independent nation. The UEP ( universal education partnership) is now recognised as being central to Scotland’s economic, cultural and health renaissance.

So what is the UEP and how did it come into being? Well, after the political turmoil of 2023 and 2024, the then SNP decided to that the only way to set out a vision for an independent Scotland would be for the people to decide its priorities. A (much maligned at the time from opposition parties) large scale public consultation of peoples assemblies began. The aim was to engage with at least 85% of the population through a series online and f2f events. During the first round of these assemblies there was a focus on a small number of key themes (sustainable energy, fiscal policy, education, creative industries, and health).

After a bit of a slow start, most interest began to centre on education. It’s not entirely clear how it happened, but the Open Scotland Declaration, in particular the notion of “publicly funded resources should be publicly available” started to gain traction. There are rumours of small bunch of open educational practitioners who ran an informal yet highly strategic public engagement plan ensuring that the Open Scotland Declaration was highlighted in every assembly meeting. In each of the over arching themes, the discussions quickly centred on education. It became clear that the success of any “future Scotland” depended on changing the education system. An independent Scotland would need a radical approach to education.

In late 2027 An anonymous poster began to appear in various places across the country, and online calling for a new universal education partnership (UEP) approach to education. Building on the concept of a universal basic income, this (at the time radical approach) called for every citizen to be given free access to education throughout their life time, at a time, place and pace that suited their needs.

Initial costings proved this would actually cost (slightly) less than the current tertiary education funding. #UEP gained more and more traction, and a plan developed. Instead of funding loans to post 16 education students and the current funding for universities and colleges, it was proposed that each citizen could access a fund that would cover 25% more than the basic living wage for the time that they were involved in educational activity. Quite quickly (again seemingly radical ) ideas about restructuring tertiary education and research began to emerge.

It turned out that turning “research subjects” into “research partners” has a dramatic impact on research. The fact that research participants were recognised for their part in research and could access their UEP fund has allowed Scotland to truly develop a nation of informed and engaged citizen scientists.

The earliest signs of success came from health research. As research participants didn’t have to rely on benefits, numerous studies (many of them ethnographic studies) have shown remarkable insights into treating some chronic health issues. The Glasgow Effect has almost been reversed. Similar effects are being seen across all sectors. At the same time, international research exchange programmes have flourished. Many large pharmaceutical. energy and financial companies have opened new centres in Scotland due to access to a highly skilled, and continually learning workforce. The changes to corporation tax including windfall contributions to the #UEP also seem to be positively accepted and widely cited in annual reporting.

Universities and colleges are now open spaces with new forms of partnerships around developing distributed and integrated curriculum. Tracking participation despite being seen by detractors as being a major challenge, was actually very simple. It turned out that every school child in Scotland already had a unique reference number that could be used. It was relatively simple to build out from this existing system. Closed exams are a thing of the past, Nearly every citizen in Scotland has contributed to the nationally supported knowledge base. Universities and colleges are now evaluated by public panels (decided through open ballots – using a process developed from the existing jury citation process). Community impact is a key factor of success. This approach has been adopted formally and informally by a number of other countries.

Research on the evolution of the UEP is continually developing and shared openly, including economic modelling. Though it appears that most citizens do access their UEP fund not everyone uses it all, many take up the option to gift their contributions back to the fund. Clearer longitudinal trends are just starting to emerge. For example, there appears to be a rise in access to funds in the over 50s. It appears that being able to more easily change career is actually allowing people to work longer. This combined with the overall increase in health and increased tax contributions and reduced NHS costs is providing a robust state funding model. Similarly there appears to be a new type of “research gap year” where 18 -25 year olds are participating in research projects before embarking on formal educational studies or taking up full time employment.

And All of this came about because it became apparent that open education wasn’t just about licences , selling “stuff” and services, or an abstract concept, it was about empowering people and making not just Scotland, but the world, open to education and all the opportunities that follow that.

Open Scotland logo

5 thoughts on “Reflections and speculations from #oer23”

  1. Good stuff Sheila. Very timely and definitely not pants!

    Education, health, living spaces, relationships and working lives are interrelated across time and space but are currently kept in separate administrative silos, only partly connected by centralised power structures. Your prospect of infusing and transforming the parts via the Universal Educational Partnership (UEP) to create a new whole is spot on. I’d call it the basis of a new social contract for all of our futures with the UEP as a powerful channel for changing what needs to be changed.

    Taking Scotland as a pioneer is practical given the established desire to create a new nation out of the historical relationships within the United Kingdom. Independence looks distant at present, so your timescale into the 2040’s with key moments along the way makes sense. Is it merely speculation though?

    It certainly fits the needs of Scotland’s ageing demographic, which could peak in about 2045 with people in their late 60’s comprising over 20% of the population. This is a pressing social reality, which needs attention and a radical approach. Current thinking, planning and societal provision constrained by short-term electoral cycles is not adequate to the scale of generational change entailed. I think it would be valuable to plot your speculations against the demographics to fine tune the changes required in relation to the human realities of an ageing population.

    For example you highlight a beneficial effect on the employment position of over 50s allowing people to change career by supported educational development. In the Spring 2023 Budget statement to the UK Parliament Jeremy Hunt MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer highlighted the issue of older workers stating: “… older people are the most skilled and experienced people we have. No country can thrive if it turns its back on such a wealth of talent and ability.”

    He’s right if somewhat unrealistic in the light of the UK’s free market economics, which treats people as a resource to be exploited and then discarded. However I think his basic insight, albeit driven by current labour market pressures to recruit/retain older workers and keep them going longer, would be much improved upon if the kind of measures flowing from the UEP were available now. So, can we do it in Scotland?

    Scotland’s new First Minister, Humza Yousaf MSP, has created a cabinet post of Minister for Independence, Jamie Hepburn MSP. At present the main job description is making sure that the whole government is focussed on whatever it takes to secure majority support for independence. To do that I think the Minister and his colleagues must expand on the nature of what an independent Scotland would be like and how it can be created. The kind of education driven future based in deliberative democracy outlined in your speculation should be part of that revisioning of what we can be.

  2. Sheila,

    I think this post might be one of the coolest artifacts of OER23 in that is takes the energy, creativity, and discussions and frames it as a creative, speculative writing exercise that is not only brilliantly executed, but somehow resists the seemingly endless barrage of dystopians futures and re-writes them as utopian, visioning change as possible, and encouraging everyone to consider the opposite of what we have been force-fed by those in power for not only the last 3 years, but arguably the last 20+.

    I love this post, it brims and brews with tightly curated vision of a domino effect of actually investing in education as a right and the single most powerful way to revert the damage the privatization of this public good has wrought in our age of irrationality. This blog post seems like the shift Rikke had talked about during her keynote, and dammit, I am here for this, Sheila!

    Thanks for this amazing work!

    1. Thanks Jim – high praise indeed! I was definitely inspired by the energy and community feeling at the conference. Now we just have to figure out how to make (bits of) it happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *