From the archive: The development of the Open University, 1970

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From the archive: The development of the Open University, 1970

I t’s been 50 years considering that the development of the Open University, now among the biggest universities in Europe. The Observer Publication of 15 November 1970 expected the start of operations in January 1971 when ‘25,000 normal males and females’ will understand ‘the guarantee of belated scholastic credentials’. Alan Roadway’s piece was headlined ‘Diy degrees’ (however aren’t all degrees that?)

Among the very first things the OU needed to get rid of was lack of knowledge about how it would work. As Roadway put it: ‘It will not be possible to get a degree by taking a seat for a couple of nights and viewing the telly.’ In truth ‘just 5% of a trainee’s time will be invested seeing’. Paradoxically enough, I invested a minimum of 20% of my time at a routine university viewing TELEVISION.

There were stress over ‘the solitude of the long-distance student’. ‘The closest thing in sight to a dreaming spire is most likely the transferring mast at Alexandra Palace,’ stated Roadway, ‘where tv and radio programs are being tape-recorded in co-operation with the BBC.’

It’s appropriate that for such an egalitarian organization, where no entry credentials were needed, the OU school at Walton Hall near Milton Keynes was developed ‘around a 26- space Georgian home that utilized to be the house of the regional lord of the manor’.

When Harold Wilson initially mooted the concept in 1963 (the jailing however deceiving title of University of the Air was dumped) it was dismissed by some as ‘quixotic’ and ‘gimmicky’. Amazing, then, that there were 42,000 candidates for courses.

Similarly mind-blowing was that 7,000 chemistry sets were sent out through the post to trainees. ‘A collection of 50 chemicals will be consisted of in the package,’ composed Roadway, ‘and though no Class One toxins will be consisted of … trainees will be alerted of the possible risk to kids.’ What could potentially have failed?