Sorry my essay is a bit late, I was being shot at!

Sorry my essay is a bit late, I was being shot at! From the soldier who sat an exam as missiles fell around him to the reservist who studied in a helicopter, how the Open University is benefiting Britain’s military

As a Royal Naval officer, I studied for a degree and then a masters with the Open University [OU]. Now I’m a tutor, and many of those in my study groups are serving in the Forces.

So I’ve seen from both sides what great work the OU does with our soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel.

It’s of terrific benefit to Britain’s military — while serving and later in civilian life — and it is just one good reason, among many, to ensure this outstanding institution gets all the support it needs at this difficult time in its history.

Like our Forces, the OU is the best in the world at what it does: distance learning.

Simon Rollo-Gunn studied at the Open University and is a recruitment manager for the Army Reserve

From its founding in 1969, it pioneered educational techniques, it kept up with the latest technology, and its teaching materials are second to none.

It’s no surprise that so many traditional universities often chose to use OU publications for their courses. The OU has certainly changed since the early Nineties when, as a diving and bomb disposal officer specialising in mines, I decided to boost my career options by studying for a degree in psychology.

I became fascinated by the way in which my study and the knowledge I acquired could be applied to the human networks and teams that the Navy relied on. Yes, I set out to be better educated, but it also made me a better officer.

My courses included OU TV programmes in the small hours. While video recorders — an innovation back then — helped, it could be tricky to see everything on my syllabus when I was at sea.

Andy Murray will never forget the maths exam he sat aboard a battleship, with a gas mask around his neck and Tomahawk missiles flying overhead 

It helped that the OU is set up to be flexible. Tutors really understood the pressures of service life, especially when essay deadlines coincided with deployment at short notice and I had to join my ship.

It’s hard to imagine now but, long before the advent of emails, everything was done by post and telephone calls. However, the OU was quick to see the huge advantages of internet technology, and now students who are in the military can download tutorials and stay connected wherever in the world they can get a signal. Some people — civilians — expressed surprise that I had the time to study for a degree.

But the aim of the Forces is to tap into the full potential of every trainee who walks into the recruiting office, and that includes providing options for extra study.

There are two financial schemes to support Forces’ students: the standard learning credit, which contributes hundreds of pounds towards the cost of a course, and the enhanced learning credit, which amounts to thousands of pounds over several years of study.

With so much at stake, it deeply concerns me that changes in central funding for the OU, the introduction of tuition fees, and cuts to the OU budget may mean courses are less accessible.

As fees rise, fewer people will be able to afford them even with assistance, and it’s the ones from disadvantaged backgrounds who will be worst affected. I’ve always admired how the OU provides a level learning playing field, one that doesn’t favour any social group. That ethos is being undermined.

It was a chance conversation with a spy that led to Mike Trott enrolling with the OU

The OU has recently introduced scholarships for disabled veterans, and I would hate to see this initiative jeopardised. We owe so much to our injured servicemen and women for their sacrifice, and education is one of the most effective and economical ways to help them.

For all personnel — myself included — leaving the Forces can be difficult. We move from a highly structured environment where we know what we’re doing, and what is expected of us, to one that is somewhat chaotic by comparison.

My OU degrees were of immeasurable help with that transition. They gave me skills that could be transferred and adapted, and qualifications that were recognised.

Through the OU, on residential weekends or in tutorial groups, I met people of all ages and walks of life. I found myself learning from men and women eager to share their rich life and work experiences.

The OU attracts people who are genuinely eager to learn, and they bring an eclectic mix of personalities. It made for some of the most fascinating discussions of my life.

The Open University is a beacon of an institution, and it’s one that the Government should be doing everything it can to protect.

Commander John Herriman is a part-time Open University associate lecturer and CEO of Greenhouse Sports, a charity helping underprivileged young people through sport. He is now a reservist with the Royal Navy.

Study in the back of a helicopter

During a tour of duty in Afghanistan, 47-year-old Simon Rollo-Gunn, a recruitment manager for the Army Reserve, learnt first-hand just how important a knowledge of the local language can be.

‘On one occasion we received a phone call from someone speaking in Pashto and warning us of an imminent attack on British troops,’ he explains.

‘Luckily, I had studied Pashto with the Military Language School back in the UK and was able to translate, which saved not only the lives of our troops but also those of anyone else who might have been caught in the crossfire.’

He says it was one of many experiences that incentivised him when he began his OU studies for a BA in Modern Language Studies (French and Spanish) in 2009.

His job meant that he did his coursework in some unusual location. ‘Frontline Afghanistan, the back of helicopters . . . you name it, I’ve been there,’ he says.

‘Afghanistan was a particularly surprising place to find yourself studying French and Spanish, but it came in useful because it was a multinational effort out there, and I ended up using them quite a lot.

‘I got a real kick out of juggling all the languages. And as the British military shrinks, and we become more dependent on our Nato partners, languages will be more important than ever.’

His own language skills were all the more surprising to him because at his Scottish boarding school he was never regarded as particularly academic.

‘Sport was more my thing,’ he says. Like many military personnel, his decision to do a degree was made with a firm eye on the future.

‘The grand scheme is eventually to get into teaching,’ he says. ‘And the OU degree was such a great way of being able to chip away at the studies, juggling family life and work.’

Simon completed ‘the long old haul’ of his studies last year.

‘During the time that I was studying we moved three times in the UK, we had a baby, and I did two six-month tours of duty in Afghanistan.

‘It was a big emotional burden on the whole family. It felt really good to get out there finally and graduate.’

As he nears the end of his time in the Army, Simon believes his prospects are promising. ‘I have a couple of opportunities with an interpreting firm in Scotland.

‘I came late to the academic side of life, and the beauty of the OU is that it gives you a second chance, and it has a knock-on effect.

‘As someone in their 40s, I can enthuse younger soldiers about what I’ve learned, and encourage them to take on a second language, and all that is thanks to the OU.’

Spy who spotted my potential

It was a chance conversation with a spy that led to Mike Trott enrolling with the OU.

From his boyhood in Bristol, Mike, now 33, had dreamed of joining the Army, inspired by his grandfather who was in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).

He made little effort at school, he says, because his understanding was that ‘you didn’t need an education to join the military’.

He signed up in 2003 when he was 18, but just three years later was medically discharged after a sports injury left him with several fractured bones in his legs which refused to heal.

‘I went off the rails for a year or so, doing a lot of drinking and stuff like that,’ he says. ‘But then I got a job running activities for a holiday company in Egypt.

‘It was while I was there I got to know a British military intelligence officer who took an interest in me.

‘He seemed very surprised that I wasn’t a graduate and said he thought I had the potential to go to university and get a degree.

‘I really liked and respected this man — and the fact that here was someone who thought I was smart.’

A traditional university wasn’t an option because Mike had no A-levels and little money, so he turned to the OU where he was offered a full bursary.

He did an OU foundation degree in sports fitness and management, and went on to study further at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, where he has since completed a Masters and is now in the middle of a PhD.

At first, Mike supported himself by working part-time as a gym manager, but then won an international competition called ‘The One’, the fitness industry’s equivalent of The X Factor, and became what he describes as ‘the world champion of fitness instructors’.

It led to him delivering masterclasses and workshops with fitness company Les Mills, which operates internationally.

‘The OU opened up my way of thinking about everything, including my career, and that has done really magnificent things for me.’

After his PhD, Mike aims to teach sports science at university — and says he will focus on helping other ex-service personnel to be given the chances he had.

‘I feel that veterans who have dedicated their lives to a cause, or to their country, should get funding to help them with their education,’ he says. ‘Otherwise you are doing them a disservice. Like me, they have so much potential to give, and without education, they might not be able to give it.’

I sat maths exam as missiles fell

Andy Murray will never forget the maths exam he sat aboard a battleship, with a gas mask around his neck and Tomahawk missiles flying overhead.

It was 1999 and the HMS Iron Duke was off the coast of Kosovo, ready to assist with the humanitarian crisis arising from the war. It is, he says, the perfect example of how you can study for an Open University degree in any circumstances.

‘I’ve got friends who filled in their exam papers while in submarines in the Arctic Circle, and some of the circumstances I sat mine under were extraordinary,’ he says.

Now 44 and a father-of-two, Andy, who is from South Yorkshire, joined the Navy at 19.

‘I didn’t do as much at school as I should have,’ he says. ‘Then I was selected to do an engineering diploma in the Navy and I suddenly realised I wasn’t that bad at maths. My adviser recommended the Open University, and it developed from there.’

After basic maths courses, he studied for a BSc Honours in Physical Sciences.

It was the requirement that, if he was abroad, any OU exams had to be taken at the same time as they were being sat in the UK, that led to those strange scenarios for Andy and other military personnel who enrolled with the OU — or the University of the Second Chance as it is known.

‘There is nowhere on a ship that you can get peace and quiet,’ he says. ‘But I got used to working in the dining room surrounded by noise and clatter, and other crew members got used to me sitting there with my books.

‘There were many times I didn’t want to study, but I pushed myself on because I did not want to give up.’

When Andy left the Navy in 2009 — by then Chief Petty Officer — after 22 years’ of service, he says his OU degree was the key to a successful transition from the services to civilian life. ‘Having a BSc after my name definitely helped me to find a job.

‘In fact, I was headhunted by a gas turbine company, and I left the Navy on a Friday and started there on the Monday. I now work as a gas turbine engineer, which also takes me all over the world.

‘Last week I was on an oil rig in the North Sea, and next week I am off to India. But now I am only away for weeks at a time instead of months.

‘I haven’t done any studying since leaving the Navy, but a colleague is currently studying engineering and I think it has rubbed off on me, because I am now contemplating going back to my OU studies and doing a Masters degree.’

Compiled by David Leafe


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