40 years ago the Open University, now the UK’s largest, was founded. Today it teaches almost 200,000 students each year, and since 1969 it has helped over 2 million students further career development or fulfill life long ambitions of learning. My dad was one of them. He had left school, having failed the 11 plus, at 14. Despite negative school experiences, he retained a passion – nay a reverence – for education that finally culminated in his taking an OU degree over 6 years while working full time and supporting his family. The effort he put in was considerably greater than mine when I started university, as I had nothing to distract me from my studies other than the usual! My mum, too, became a graduate in her forties having been told by her father that higher education was unsuitable for girls.  How lucky most young people are to have greater choices today!

It was in1963 that Harold Wilson stated in a speech in Glasgow: Today I want to outline new proposals on which we are working, a dynamic programme providing facilities for home study to university and higher standards. When Labour won the election in 1964, Harold Wilson appointed Jennie Lee and asked her to take on the ‘University of the Air’ project.

Many commentators were severely sceptical, if not downright hostile, but thousands rushed to register. Forty years on, The Open University is consistently in the top three of the National Students Survey of Student Satisfaction, had 18 of 25 subjects classed as excellent in the last UK Quality Assurance Agency subject review, and in the recent UK universities Research Assessment Exercise rose 23 places in the UK research league table, with 14% of its research described as ‘world leading’ and more than 50% described as ‘internationally excellent’. Today there are 14,000 students in Scotland alone.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brenda Gourley, said: The Open University has turned an educational system devised in another age into a tool of the knowledge society, and used open and distance education to make the world a better place: abandoning entry criteria and using technology has enabled us to provide education to millions of people who might otherwise be condemned to poverty and hardship. This is an extraordinary record of which the UK should be proud. It has also been achieved while becoming a first-rate university in any terms, standing proudly among its more traditional peers and partners.

The Open University has not only put social justice at the very heart of what it seeks to do – it is the very stuff of its mission. It has played a real part in shaping the future society in Britain and elsewhere. It has in the process helped many people to realise their dreams.

The wonderful Fry and Laurie sketch above reflects the enduringly popular image of earnest OU academics with beards, sandals and kipper ties in those early TV programmes. But it was revolutionary to have erudite expositions of advanced knowledge accessible to all with TV. Today The Open University has taken open-ness to a whole new level. On the OU’s Open Learn website a vast array of academic material is available free, from 2 hour taster pieces, to a whole week’s study, in a huge range of subjects. And the OU continues to lead the way in learning technology. In 2008 The Open University became the first university to offer free downloadable course material via iTunesU and today over 50,000 OU tracks are downloaded from iTunesU each week.

But more importantly, it still enables those who traditionally have been excluded from further and higher education to realize their potential. Perhaps the greatest innovation brought about by the OU has been its seriousness about pedagogy, and about skills. Its course teams think really hard about how to teach particular subjects at particular levels, in a way which fully exploits the particular strengths of different media. And the academic, study and writing skills which are rewarded so highly at conventional universities, but rarely taught, are explained and developed by the OU at every level so as to progressively create independent and capable learners. OU courses make explicit that which the teaching at my university (and those of my children) left implicit, thus offering entry into new worlds for learners whose formal education may have been stunted by lack of opportunity. Teachers in schools could learn much from this approach.

So, as I remember the unique excitement and anticipation of starting at university myself 40 years ago (I was of course a mere babe in arms), I want to wish the OU a very happy birthday!

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