Having overcome a troubled recent past, including the loss of a £6m site, the National Extension College celebrates half a century of learning — and is looking forward to a bright future, explains Anne Nicholls.

This year the National Extension College (NEC) — the distance learning organisation that was the forerunner of the Open University — celebrates its 50th anniversary.

But it nearly didn’t make it to the half century mark.

Following a merger with the former Learning and Skills Network (LSN) in 2010 amid promises to invest and double student numbers over three years, LSN went into liquidation in November the following year.

That left NEC teetering having lost its assets, notably its three-and-a-half-acre site in Cambridge valued then at around £6m.

Fast forward nearly two years and the NEC is still here, largely due to the committed staff, along with the goodwill of many loyal tutors and former staff who volunteered to get the business back on its feet.

The recovery was led by former chief executive Ros Morpeth who, despite having retired from the post in 2003, stepped in like a white knight to take the helm again.

The NEC is still here, largely due to the committed staff, along with the goodwill of many loyal tutors and former staff”

Over its half century, NEC has helped nearly three quarters of a million people of all ages — particularly second chance learners — to get a foot on the education ladder, gain qualifications and change their lives.

Highlights include 30-hour basic (a joint venture with the BBC in the 1980s on its computer literacy programme), a pioneering work-based degree in the 1990s for Coca Cola employees and FlexiStudy — an innovative partnership which, at its peak, involved more than 140 FE colleges to enable them to enrol learners who couldn’t attend college on a regular basis.

Despite nail-biting periods when finances seemed to wobble, it has always been self-funding and remained independent.

“We have always operated in the uncomfortable territory between an ethos of public service, but without government funding,” said Dr Morpeth.

“I cannot pretend that this is easy, but fortunately we are used to surviving and there is still a strong demand for the open access and flexibility we can offer.”

With higher education becoming unaffordable to many and a perceptible growth in the need for flexible learning there is a clear market.

A priority has been to build a new fit-for-purpose IT system.

But the NEC is resisting a move in the direction of MOOCs (massive online open learning courses).

“What we offer is different,” says Dr Morpeth.

“Our strength has always been on personalised learning and providing routes to national qualifications. We have always focussed on quality and successful outcomes for our students. That approach may have jeopardised our financial stability at times, but it’s what we are.”

The 50th anniversary, hopefully, will mark a change in fortunes for an organisation that has remained true to its founding principles.

It is running an ambitious publicity campaign based around students and tutors both past and current.

It is also offering 50 hours of selected free online course materials from 12 of its courses until November 3 — the final day of the National Family Learning Festival co-ordinated by the Campaign for Learning.

The topics on offer — law, economics, accounting, childcare, climate change, short story writing and more — have been picked to appeal to a wide range of people, from career changers to would-be creative writers.

NEC has also retained its relationship with some Flexistudy colleges, including Shrewsbury College. Roger Merritt, who developed the original FlexiStudy network, is now back at NEC and is interested in hearing from FE colleges that want to extend their learning provision in partnership with NEC.

Student numbers are around 7,000 and growing although not quite at the level they were 10 to 15 years ago.

But the NEC has deliberately gone back to basics — doing what it has always excelled at which is providing flexible learning for people in a mode that fits their lifestyle.

Anne Nicholls, communications and PR consultant, AN Communications