The OU story
What other nation in the world could have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, The Open University, Gardeners’ Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit?
Bill Bryson, author and honorary graduate of the OU
The Open University was the world’s first successful distance teaching university, founded on the belief that communications technology could bring high quality degree-level learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend traditional campus universities.
The idea that new technologies such as radio and television could be used to bring education to a wide audience began to surface as long ago as the 1920s.
But it was not until the early 1960s that the idea gained momentum, when the Labour party under Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided to take action to address the continuing exclusion from higher education of people from lower income groups – building on the vision of social reformer and political activist Michael Young.
Wilson later recalled:
That Easter Sunday (1963) I spent in the Isles of Scilly. Between church and lunch I wrote the whole outline for a University of the Air.
When Labour won the election in 1964, Harold Wilson appointed Jennie Lee as Minister for the Arts and asked her to take over the project. Without her total commitment, The Open University may have remained nothing more than a bold idea – but she gradually wore down hostility and indifference.
A committee of university vice-chancellors, educationalists and television broadcasters began planning in 1965, and The Open University became a manifesto commitment in 1966.
Professor Walter Perry was appointed the OU's first vice-chancellor in 1969, and its Foundation Secretary was Anastasios Christodoulou. With a staff of 70-80 people, they transferred their offices to Walton Hall, a small country estate in the new city of Milton Keynes.
Right from the start the OU adopted a radical open admissions policy, while attaining the highest standards of scholarship. It was a model which proved extremely popular with the public.
When the OU accepted its first students in 1971, 25,000 people enrolled and 20,000 registered on a course – at a time when the total student population in the UK was only about 130,000.
Expansion and consolidation
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s student numbers steadily increased, despite political pressures during the years of Conservative government. Science home experiment kits, late night TV broadcasts and residential schools became part of the OU folklore.
More courses and subject areas were introduced; and as the importance of career development grew, professional training courses were offered alongside academic programmes.
The first postgraduate degrees were introduced; a modest project for British nationals in Brussels expanded to attract students from every country in the EU; and in 1983 the OU Business School – today the largest business school in Europe – opened its doors.
Expansion continued during the 1990s, with new areas of study including law and modern languages; and the introduction of named degrees as an alternative to the Open degree.
Partnerships were established to deliver higher education in other countries, and the OU became a model for distance learning across the world.
New methods of learning also featured as computers began to replace typewriters on desks and video recorders replaced the need to set the alarm to view the OU’s early morning broadcasts. By 1988, three courses required the use of a computer and students communicated with each other with the early Internet using the CoSy conferencing system.
The OU/BBC partnership reflected changing technologies as video and DVD replaced live broadcasts, and peak-time BBC series brought educational content to a much wider audience.
Today, course delivery takes full advantage of the internet, with students learning online and on mobile devices, and using high-tech tools like the virtual microscope.
OU content is also freely available through OpenLearn and popular social media such as iTunes U and Youtube, and as part of FutureLearn – an international university collaboration to bring online learning to a global audience.
The OU today
In 2009 Martin Bean became the university's fifth Vice-Chancellor. Martin's arrival coincided with a radical overhaul of the way higher education is funded, with far-reaching effects for universities and their students, including the OU.
The university was instrumental in persuading government to make tuition fee loans available to part-time learners for the first time – an important step in establishing parity for all students.
In 2013, over 200,000 students were learning with the OU – many of them accessing course materials on their smartphones and tablets, studying when and where it suits them best. According to the National Student Survey, 92% were satisfied with the quality of their course, putting the OU in the top 5 universities in the UK for student satisfaction.
Martin left the university in December 2014. He will be succeeded by Peter Horrocks in May 2015, with Professor Tim Blackman serving as interim Vice-Chancellor until then.
You can read about our most recent projects and future plans in the OU Annual Report, and see how far we’ve come in just forty years. But whatever tomorrow holds for the OU, our founding principles continue to drive everything that we do – to be open to people, places, methods and ideas.
This is a summary of a longer article on The History of the OU website – a unique project drawing on the collective experience of OU staff and students over 40 years.
More like this
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How The Open University partners with the BBC, other education institutions and employers worldwide, and how to collaborate with us.
The story of The Open University from early political thinkers through to our 40th anniversary in 2009 and beyond.
Statistics and information on OU students, alumni, honorary graduates, courses and programmes, staff, funding, disability and employment.