Insight: 50 years of the Open University

Fifty years after its launch, grateful alumni of the Open University tell Dani Garavelli how its ‘white heat’ helped to forge a new life for students

Penny Andrews, who completed the Information, Computer and Technology degree via the Open University, dances with lesser Labour light Ed Balls.
Penny Andrews, who completed the Information, Computer and Technology degree via the Open University, dances with lesser Labour light Ed Balls.

One of Penny Andrews’ favourite photographs shows her dancing with the former shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. The most striking thing about it is her turquoise hair. But cast your eyes down and you can see two Labour veterans peeking out from the top of her sock. Such is Andrews’ admiration for Jennie Lee and Barbara Castle that she has had their faces tattooed on her right calf.

Andrews’ devotion to Lee, in particular, stems from the then arts minister’s role in founding the Open University. The idea for a “university of the air”, accessible to those for whom campus-based institutions were out of reach, may have been Harold Wilson’s, but Lee was the woman who ensured it secured its Royal Charter, 50 years ago next month.

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Andrews is one of the millions who have benefited from the OU’s approach to education in its half-century. Like many young people, she headed straight from school to university, only to find herself overwhelmed. “Basically, I hated the course, hated the place and didn’t have any friends,” she says. “I am autistic, but I hadn’t been diagnosed back then. I felt like a number rather than a person.”

Ruth Wishart credits the Open University for keeping her sane after the sudden death of her husband. Picture: John Devlin

Andrews dropped out, and the following year left a broadcasting course closer to her home in Leeds, after being offered a job on a dotcom.

“I was made redundant, but got other jobs. Then it came to the crash and I just wasn’t getting interviews any more. I couldn’t get past the first screening because I didn’t have a degree, so I thought either I have a baby or I go back into education.”

Because she had dropped out twice, she couldn’t go to another campus-based university, but at that time, the OU had its own funding system and her income was low enough that she could study for free. The OU gave Andrews the flexibility she needed, and extra support once her autism was diagnosed. She completed the Information, Computer and Technology degree in four years (it usually takes six) and was offered a graduate training job in an academic library. Since then, she has completed a masters degree and is nearing the end of a PhD. She has travelled round the world speaking at conferences and written for several national publications.

Andrews’ decision to etch her gratitude to the OU on her skin may be extreme, but there is no shortage of graduates who have their gratitude etched on their hearts. People such as the journalist Ruth Wishart, who credits the institution for keeping her sane after the sudden death of her husband, Rod McLeod; or Fiona Robertson, who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and could not finish her degree in a traditional university.

As captured by the film Educating Rita, the Open University has opened up new vistas for working class men and women made to feel university was not for them; but it attracts students across all demographics and life circumstances. Essays have been written in hospitals and sports stadiums, on oil rigs and in prisons. They have even – as Simon Rollo-Gunn, who studied French and Spanish while serving in Afghanistan, can testify – been completed under fire.

The way the courses are delivered has changed. Where once it meant watching TV programmes in the wee small hours, and posting off essays to be marked, most of the studying can now be done online.

But the basic mission of reaching and retaining those who might otherwise miss out endures. This the university does by accepting students regardless of their academic qualifications and by allowing them to accumulate credits over an extended period of time, stopping and starting again as circumstances demand.

“The OU changed my life,” says Andrews. “I look like a different person, I feel like a different person. It has given me the confidence to do things I’d never have dreamed of.”

THE idea for the Open University had its roots in correspondence courses in the Soviet Union and in the ideas of social activist Michael Young – father of Toby – who had launched a dawn university, a series of early morning lectures, on Anglia TV.

During his game-changing “white heat of technology” speech of 1963, Wilson outlined his vision. If elected, the Labour Party would create a “university of the air” “designed to provide an opportunity for those who, for one reason or another, had not been able to take advantage of Higher Education to do so now.” Wilson understood the need to widen participation and saw flexibility and the harnessing of technology as the best way to achieve it.

When the Labour Party came into power the following year, few believed his dream would be realised. The plan was met by much opposition, not only from the Conservatives and traditional universities, which felt threatened, but from his own department of education and science and the Treasury.

Bereft of support, Wilson eventually turned to Lee, a junior minister who had already proved her worth by setting up the Arts Council. Lee was a miner’s daughter from Lochgelly in Fife – a political firebrand with a candy floss explosion of white hair – who understood the importance of education in promoting social mobility and was determined to see it through. She insisted the OU would not be some second-rate institution; there was to be no compromising on the standard of education it provided.

After the OU was granted its Royal Charter in April 1969, staff had less than 18 months to design the first four foundation courses in the arts, maths, social sciences and science and develop the complex administrative system necessary to deliver them before teaching started in January 1971. An HQ was created in Walton Place, Milton Keynes, with 13 regional offices up and running by the early 70s. Dundonian Walter Perry, a former pharmacology professor at Edinburgh University, was appointed vice-chancellor. And, at TV studios in Alexandra Palace, in London, producers began work on the programmes, delivered by earnest academics, with kipper ties and sideburns, that many of us remember from our youth.

Academics were tasked with drawing up degree courses from scratch with no idea what sort of materials would be appropriate; finally, there was the massive operation required to deal with the 130,000 inquiries and 43,000 applications the OU received for its initial intake of 25,000.

An additional problem came in the form of the 1970 general election. The Labour government was ousted by the Conservatives, and Margaret Thatcher was appointed education secretary. But Thatcher was as obstinate in her own way as Lee. She too refused to bow to the pressure of the patrician voices within her party eager to shut down the OU.

“It’s strange to think you had these two very strong, determined, feisty female politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum supporting the OU for very different reasons,” says Susan Stewart, director of the OU in Scotland.

While researching this piece, I heard so many transformative stories: of mothers taking their babies along to lectures; of study time carved out between bundles of ironing; of friendships formed and careers embarked upon.

For Wishart it was about making up for lost time. Her father had died not long before she left school and finances were tight, so while many of her friends went off to university, she took a job as an editorial assistant at the Daily Record. It wasn’t that she regretted her choices: she forged a highly successful career as a journalist. But she always had a bit of a chip on her shoulder; a feeling that she had missed out.

It was Rod who pushed her to apply to the OU; she chose a humanities degree which, she says, was great for a journalist with a butterfly mind because it offered a bit of everything: music, history, science, public policy.

She and Rod had been out to celebrate the end of her second year exams, and were heading down south to pick up a puppy when Rod took “a funny turn”. Doctors discovered he had a brain tumour which was operable, but he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage during surgery. He died three weeks after he first took ill.

“I think anyone who suffers a bereavement has a form of madness descend upon them and in the immediate aftermath I thought there was absolutely no way I was going to continue with the studying,” says Wishart. “But then I needed something to do, some sort of project to stop my mind going round in circles. If you have to go and research an essay it forces you to think about something else for a while.” Wishart got a first class degree in 2008; she missed Rod at her graduation, but knew how proud he would have been.

Fiona Robertson, 38, was studying theoretical physics at Durham University when her health suddenly declined and she had to give up her course. Bed-bound, or in a wheelchair, for more than three years, she sank into a depression, but a chance meeting with disability activists helped her reframe her life and she started writing accessible science pieces for other people with complicated conditions. Later, her eyes were opened to the potential of the OU, and she signed up for a writing degree.

Throughout her studies, she has experienced nothing but positivity, with student support staff on hand to help when things are tough. She has good days and bad days, but as an OU undergraduate she can study whenever she feels at her best.

In her third year, she was struggling with the amount of online work – she finds it difficult to absorb information from a computer screen. So she was put in touch with staff from the Disability Student Allowance staff, who fixed her up with a laptop, an adjustable frame to hold it wherever suited here, and a recorder for note-taking.

Having been elected SNP’s national women’s and equalities convener, Robertson has deferred her last year of study, but all going well, she should graduate in October 2020.

“Studying was part of my identity,” she says. “I had chosen Durham because it is a prestigious university. But the OU is a globally recognised institution so it didn’t feel like I was settling for a lesser degree, which was important to me.”

Despite the flexibility, Robertson doesn’t believe she could have pursued OU studies prior to the internet. “My mum did that, and she always seemed to be running out the door on a Friday to submit her hand-written papers,” she says. “Being able to use dictation software, to write and submit electronically and to communicate with my tutor group on the online forums – those things helped make it possible.”

Robertson is right of course; the OU has changed. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, its 200,000 students are able to make full use of “the white heat of technology”, just as Harold Wilson anticipated.

Over time, the TV programmes have become online videos and podcasts, and even one-to-one tutorials can take place in cyberspace if it suits the student. As the delivery has shifted, so too have the demographics. There is a preconception that OU students are predominantly middle-aged returners studying humanities, but the average age of new undergraduates in Scotland is 27 and three-quarters of them are in work. In addition, 41 per cent of OU students do STEM subjects and 49 per cent of those studying STEM subjects are women – a much higher proportion than at traditional universities. Twenty-one per cent of OU undergraduates are disabled. The OU still adheres to its core values. Its original charter stated it must be of benefit not merely to its own students, but to the wider community. Today, it fulfils that remit with OpenLearn – free access to course materials and expert opinion on everything from the death of David Bowie to the politics of the Middle East.

And yet, the OU is under threat, particularly in England. The decision to withdraw teaching grants and raise the cap on university fees in 2012 led to a 56 per cent drop in part-time students across the board. Though, at around £18,000 for a degree, the OU in England is still cheaper than traditional universities, it has seen a 30 per cent drop in students.

This is not true in Scotland where those who earn less than £25,000 are entitled to have their fees paid through the Students Awards Agency for Scotland (SASS). Here the numbers have continued to grow, but the overall drop led to the threat of a cut in the number of courses, which would affect everyone. The OU is also coming under pressure due to competition from other providers, particularly MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses).

Last week, Vice-Chancellor Mary Kellet told Theresa May that if she was serious about realising the UK government’s ambition on lifelong learning she should look to Wales, which introduced a sliding scale of grants and loan support for students following recommendations from the Diamond Review. As a result, there has been a 40 per cent rise in part-time students in Wales this year.

While these issues are being thrashed out, the OU will continue to offer an alternative to traditional universities.

“Given future work studies suggest kids in primaries will be doing jobs we have not even thought of, the notion that someone will be trained at 17 or 18 and then that will be it for the rest of their working lives is no longer feasible,” says OU director Susan Stewart. “In the next 50 years upskilling and reskilling is going to become more important. We are ideally placed to deliver this because our model of distance learning means a big UK or multinational company can be sure their worker in Stornoway is getting the exact same educational experience as their worker in Devon. But we will always have social justice at our core. “

Katrena Wilkie certainly hopes so. She left school with no qualifications. When she turned up for her history exam, her teacher asked her why she had bothered.

“I went to a country primary school and a small town academy. We were seen as female from working class families and labelled as only good enough to be a secretary, child minder, factory worker,” she says. “That’s what I believed about myself.”

Wilkie went on to work as an auxiliary nurse and as a hotel cook; she married and had a baby. But then one day the mother of a friend, who was studying the arts through the OU, thrust a prospectus in her hand. “I just laughed and said: ‘What are you talking about?’”

But later she flicked through, and found her interest piqued by social sciences. After testing the water with an open course, she caught the education bug and signed up for her first modules. Wilkie’s OU experience has been sporadic. She needed some time out when her father died while she was pregnant with her second child, and has interspersed her OU work with studying on traditional campuses, qualifying to teach literacy and English as a Foreign Language. Still, last year – 20 years after she began – she finally graduated from the OU. She now works with Syrian refugees.

“The OU didn’t just give me knowledge, it made me believe in myself,” Wilkie says. “The day my friend’s mother handed me that prospectus, she changed my life. If she hadn’t, I’d be working in a shop or a kitchen.”