Happy 50th Birthday OU!!

How do you find the words to describe a university that not only changes lives, but a uni that is the largest of its kind with a current student body of 174 00; a uni that delivers courses on all four continents; a uni that has created a disabled veterans fund, which allows disabled veterans to study for free; and a uni that delivers courses to 1700 prisoners? A few words that come to mind include, wonderful, accessible, available, freedom, or how about ‘Open to All!’

So how did a uni that does so much begin? There is so much to tell you that one article would never be able to do it justice. So here is their story in just a few brief words. So settle in, pop open that bottle of wine and relax as I take you on a journey…

How it began

1960 Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, the hippie movement was upcoming, Elvis Presley’s, ‘It’s Now or Never’, was the bestselling single of the year and a university that was open to all was just a twinkle in someone’s eye.  By the end of 1963, the Carry on Films were up and coming, the Beatles had released their debut album, the great train robbery had taken place and Macmillan had resigned as Prime Minister. With the Conservatives being in power since the 1950’s, the rise of the Labour party saw Harold Wilson, the shadow foreign secretary, give a speech outlining his idea for a university ‘open to all’, which became known as one of the most ‘memorable political speeches of the 20th Century’. This Speech from the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough can be found here.

This conference saw the start of a pilot for an ‘Open Access University’. Under the direction of Michael Young, a social activist and politician, and Brian Jackson, the National Extension College was formed. The pilot was a success receiving over 3,000 enquires in its first 8 weeks.

1964 saw Harold Wilson become Prime Minister and his idea for a university with a difference started to form. He received some opposition from his party, with the main opposition being that the university would only attract middle class housewives, so he appointed Jennie Lee, a Scottish MP, who in 1966 produced a white paper outlining plans for a ‘University of Air’. On the 23rd April 1969, the Open University received its Royal Charter. A university which Jennie Lee described as “a great independent university which does not insult any man or women whatever their background by offering them the second best. Nothing but the best is good enough”[1]

The first home to the OU was in Belgrave square in London before moving to Milton Keynes in 1969.

1970 saw applications open and by 1971 the first set of students had started their studies. The Open University was born. Geoffrey Crowther was installed as the first Chancellor of the OU and in his first speech he set out the mission for the OU:  “We are open, first, as to people…, We are open to places…, We are open as to methods…, We are open, finally, to ideas…”[2].

No-one knew if the OU would be successful but the numbers spoke for themselves. Originally the OU had 25,000 places to fill.  They received over 40,000 applications from prospective students! By 1972 the student body had grown to 36,000 with fifty post graduate students and by the end of 1979 the OU had taken on more than 70,000 students, from housewives, to actors to the disabled and even prisoners. The focus was on those who would have otherwise being excluded from attending a mainstream university. This certainly was a university that offered the true meaning to diversity.

To celebrate the Open University’s 10th birthday Her Majesty the Queen visited the Campus in Milton Keynes for the first time.

The 1980s saw government cuts to the Open University budget, meaning higher tuition fees and cuts in services.  Drawing the attention of students and the media, a petition with over 165,000 signatures was delivered to Downing Street. Backing the OU,  a parliamentary early day motion read,  “That this House confirms its belief in the Open University and regrets the repeated grant reduction imposed… furthermore acknowledges the excellent and vital work of the Open University in providing educational opportunities, especially for the unemployed, disabled and those in remote areas…” Reconfirming once again the backing of support from the government.

1983 Also saw Julie Walters make her debut role in the feature film ‘Educating Rita’. The story followed that of Rita, a married women, who decided she wanted to learn again, and enrolled herself onto an Open University course. Her tutor, Frank, was played by Michael Caine and Rita’s passion for learning whilst not having the education ignited his passion for literacy, something he had lost a long time ago. The film proved that the Open University was an institute of its time, and how it could change the lives of students.

Over the years the OU has created many different societies, The Open University Law Society being one of them, formed in 2010.  The society helps law students in their travels and beyond.

The OU and BBC Partnership

In order for the Open University to work, it needed to collaborate with TV Broadcasters to bring the courses being delivered to life. The relationship between the OU and the BBC began on the January 3rd 1971 at 11am on BBC2 with ‘The Open Forum’. The home of the broadcasting studios was Alexander Palace where OU TV material was produced.

Whilst the partnership was strong, the OU was not given the facilities or studio time needed to produce content which put producers under strain. Whilst this continued to be a concern, OU courses were broadcast on BBC2 until the last showing on the 16th December 2006 at 5:30am.  The archive of scripts for thousands of OU courses can be found at the OU campus in Milton Keynes.

This did not mean the OU was finished but merely it had finally moved with the times and produced course content on to cassette and DVD’s. Despite this, it was certainly not the end of the OU/BBC partnership. The partnership between the OU and the BBC has seen over seven thousand TV shows and over four thousand radio shows broadcast.[3]

Even today the OU and the BBC produce up to 35 projects a year. Past projects of the OU/BBC partnership have included Blue Planet, The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway, The Brexit storm and The Prosecutors to name a few.  Most recently, on Thursday 25th April, at 9pm BBC 4 aired Sir Lenny Henry commentating on a documentary about the OUs 50 years.  

There are still many more programs to come this year including the launch of Blue Planet II. A full list of upcoming TV and Radio shows can be found here.

The Courses

To begin with, the Open University offered just four courses: M100 – Mathematics: a foundation course D100 – Understanding society: a foundation course, A100 – Humanities: a foundation course, S100 Science foundation course. In 1972 another course was introduced T100 Technology course. 

Initially, courses were delivered through TV broadcasting and coursework sent through the post. This system had problems in itself, and, in 1971, just as the OU was about to launch, a nationwide postal strike took place threatening to postpone the start of courses. However, with the help of the then Chancellor, Geoffrey Crowther, who rolled up his sleeves and got involved with stuffing envelopes, and vans picking up and delivering the material, there was only minimal disruption.

1973 to 1975 saw the creation of basic skill courses such as; PE261 Reading Development, P911 The first years of life and P912 the pre-school child.

By the end of 1979 the Open University was offering one hundred and thirty undergraduate courses and the way they were being delivered started to change as well. By the mid-80s most households had access to a video cassette player and more and more courses were being recorded on to cassette and sent out to students to listen to as and when they needed and wanted.

By the late 80’s for some of the major courses, saw students needing direct access to a computer. One of these courses was DT200 Introduction to information technology.

Whilst the Open University was striving and the yearly intake was at an all-time high, it felt there was a group of people who were getting over looked and this was British Nationals overseas. 1982 saw the OU expand five courses to British nationals in Brussels and during 1983 this expanded to Non-British nationals as well. By the end of the 1980s the OU had expanded its courses to over seven hundred students in Luxemburg, Holland and Belgium. 1989 saw the OU expand to Honk Kong and other countries on both the Asian and South American continent. 

The courses continued to grow through the 1990s with more and more courses being delivered through computer, and more students were joining from across the whole of Europe and the rest of the world. The 90s also saw the introduction of courses by CD and DVD.

The 2000s saw a growth in courses and how they were delivered. The vision that was once envisaged had come to life and soared through the decades and through the changes in technology. 2000 also saw the launch of ‘My Open Library’ which allowed students to access a range of books, journals and databases at the touch of a finger.

2006 courses were still going strong and to help people who did not want a degree, or wanted to see what learning would be like again if they had not studies in a while, saw the launch of ‘OpenLearn’.

The courses now open to students is vast. There is not a subject you cannot study – from Creative Writing to Criminology to Masters of Law and even PHD’s. As the saying goes the Sky’s the Limit.

Graduation ceremonies

For many people back in the 70’s, the idea of going to university was something that never crossed their mind.  Not because they did not want to go or learn but it was too far beyond their reach.  Many left school to go straight into work or look after a family and the OU opened up the opportunity not only to go to uni but to stand up on stage in their cap and gown and receive their degree.

Graduating is an honour and a feeling like no other. The first graduation ceremony took place on the 23rd June 1973 and was held at Alexander palace. The ceremony was televised live to BBC2, the footage from the day can be found here.

Since the first ever degree ceremony the events have grown vastly, with ceremonies being held in London, Poole, Manchester, Ely, Glasgow, Belfast, Torquay – the list is endless.  When starting out on your degree path, graduating may seem a million miles away, and at times during your studies you may wonder if it is worth it… the short answer is: Yes Yes, YES!! 100%. The feeling of standing up on that stage and hearing your name called sends thousands of emotions through your body.

Every person who stands on that stage has come on a journey, whether that be as a mother, a father, a carer, someone with disabilities, someone working full time, someone straight out of school, someone retired, or someone famous, The OU knows no end.

The degree ceremonies have grown over the past 50 years and have now seen over 2 million students come through its doors.  I am sure the next 50 years will be just as popular.

During my degree ceremony at the Barbican last September Professor Ian Fribbance, Executive Dean of the faculty of Arts and Social Science, gave a speech on the people that come through the door of the Open University and how The OU differs from other brick universities. His speech hit home with many when he asked us to put our hands up if during our studies we had to run a family, work full or part time, had a disability or had a caring role. The room was a sea of hands in the air showing just what each individual in that room had conquered. His reply is one that will stay with me for a long time “OU students are described as part-time students, but as we have just shown it is more like double time” On this matter I second this. He also went on to say the Open University is a university that believes “where you start in life should not limit where you go” Again I must second this and totally agree on this statement.

The degree ceremonies are not only about you as a student but those that have helped and guided you through your studies. Many partners, husbands, wives, families will have to have given up their time to allow you to study for that they should also be applauded. As Ian Fribbance said, “The only thing tougher than being an Open University student, is having to live with one”.

Many people have gained a degree via the wonderful OU.  Some have been honorary degrees such as Jennie Lee and Michael Young, and Sir Lennie Henry who, started off with an honorary degree but turned it into a PHD as his love for the OU and study grew.

The Open University’s mission when it all began in 1969 still stands today as a university that it open to PEOPLE, PLACES, METHODS AND IDEAS.

How to get involved

The OU are holding a number of events throughout the year to celebrate its 50th Birthday.  On the 4th July there is the 50th Anniversary Concert and The Festival of Business and Law from the 8-12th July to name just a few… A full list of events can be found here.

A Word from the OULS Editor:

There is so much to do and so much to say about this wonderful institution… Thank you to the founders who believed… Thank you to the tutors who strived… To all past students: Thank you for believing, to all present students: Keep Believing and to all future students: Keep the belief going ….  

Finally…. I hope you will all join me in wishing the OU a very happy 50th birthday, so from the news team and the OULS Committee, HAPPY 50TH BIRTHDAY OPEN UNIVERISTY!!! You Rock!!


Written By: Victoria-Jayne Scholes

 Image courtesy of: shutterstock

[1]  “Jennie Lee”. About the OU. Open University,UK. .

[2] https://www.open.ac.uk/library/digital-archive/featured/96

[3] https://www3.open.ac.uk/media/fullstory.aspx?id=20424


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