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History of the OU

"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 OU's mission

The early years: a vision of inclusiveness

In 1926, the educationalist and historian J C Stobart wrote a memo, while working for the infant BBC, advocating a 'wireless university'. However, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the idea gathered steam and a number of proposals surfaced.

In an article for Where? Magazine (autumn 1962), Michael Young proposed 'an Open University' to prepare people for external degrees of London University. The BBC and the Ministry of Education were already discussing plans for a 'College of the Air', while in March 1963, a Labour Party study group under the chairmanship of Lord Taylor presented a report about the continuing exclusion from higher education of people from lower income groups. It proposed an experiment on radio and television: a 'University of the Air' for serious, planned, adult education.

Harold Wilson appoints Jennie Lee

Harold Wilson, leader of the Labour Party, was thinking about 'a new educational trust' that brought together many institutions and organisations to produce television and other educational material, rather than an independent and autonomous institution that granted its own degrees.

"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." Harold Wilson

When Labour won the election in 1964, Harold Wilson appointed Jennie Lee as Minister for the Arts and asked her to take over the University of the Air project.

Without Jennie Lee, it seems likely that Harold Wilson's idea would have failed. Her total commitment and tenacity gradually wore down the mountains of hostility and indifference that she faced.

Manifesto commitment in 1966

In 1966 Labour's general election manifesto contained a commitment to establish the University of the Air. Wilson was returned with an increased majority and in September 1967 his Cabinet agreed to set up a Planning Committee 'to work out a comprehensive plan for an open university'.

The pioneering years: from foundation to first graduations

By May 1969 Professor Walter Perry had been appointed as The Open University's first Vice-Chancellor and he and a dozen staff were in office using the house in Belgrave Square where the Planning Committee had been meeting. Such was the urgency to get going that Perry’s small team had to write the first student prospectus before any work had begun on designing and creating the actual courses.

In September The Open University transferred to a small country estate in the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes - itself less than two years old - with a staff of 70 to 80 people

 "That winter the site turned into a quagmire, with floods from the river and our building activities. One hundred pairs of slippers were bought to save the new carpets." Walter Perry

The OU opens in 1971 offering 'a new type of learning'

The OU opened to its first students – 25,000 of them -  in January 1971 with a choice of four multi-disciplinary foundation courses in the arts, social sciences, science or maths.

With its radical open admissions policy – it did not insist on any prior educational qualifications - the university required students to take two foundation courses before moving on to higher level study and, eventually, a BA Open degree. In addition, much of the emphasis for this mixed ability audience was on teaching study skills.

Just the same, a large proportion of students in the OU’s first years turned out to be teachers, converting their Certificate in Education into a full degree.

Late night TV broadcasts become OU folklore

Charismatic figures like Arthur Marwick, Professor of History, and Mike Pentz, the first Dean of Science, roared defiance at more conventional peers elsewhere, as the OU proved triumphantly that it is possible to teach university-level courses to unqualified students, at a distance. Science home experiment kits, late night TV broadcasts and residential schools became part of the OU folklore.

Through the 1970s: acceptance as a 'real university'

The Open University was the first institution to break the insidious link between exclusivity and excellence. It is a University founded on an ideal and, like all revolutionary ideas, attracted hostility and criticism.

In 1969, when the idea of The Open University was announced, it was described as "blithering nonsense" by Iain Macleod MP. By 1980, Who's Who accepted that Eric Devenport, Bishop of Dunwich, did have a real degree after querying the BA Hons (Open) he listed after his name. But even more visible to the public at large was the appearance of Willy Russell's play 'Educating Rita', showing how an OU degree could change lives and fortunes.

“[Mrs Thatcher] came and tore us to shreds...She even said how could we justify spending so much money in order to satisfy the hobbies of housewives.” ‘Chris’ Christodoulou, University Secretary 1969-1980

Total student numbers had reached 70,000, and some 6,000 people were graduating each year. From then on the institution would each year set new records in the numbers of people applying to study and achieving their degree.

That increase came in the face of a hefty 7% cut in the university’s grant when the government changed in 1970 and the new Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, seemed less than impressed.


1980s: expansion and consolidation

"Our main strength was in our students, both in numbers and in spirit." Sir John Horlock, Vice-Chancellor 1981-1990

Sir John Horlock was Vice-Chancellor from 1981 to 1990. He wrote: “I had not anticipated the political was hardly surprising that the foundation of a university with great pride by Harold Wilson should not awaken similar feelings in a Tory government ...We had to mount a 'Save the OU' campaign. Not the least effective were thousands of letters to MPs."

The university's expansion continued throughout the 1980s as more courses and subject areas were introduced; and as the importance of career development grew, so the university began to offer professional training courses alongside its academic programmes.

The OU Business School opens in 1983

1983 marked the opening of the OU Business School, whose worldwide success has seen it become the largest business school in Europe. The university also expanded into Europe in the early 1980s, initially with a modest project for British nationals in Brussels that has expanded to attract students from every country in the EU.

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.

Using the same multi-media mix of teaching and learning methods, the university introduced its first taught higher degrees.They, too, have become one of the university's stories of success at scale. More than 20,000 people are currently studying at a postgraduate level - a number higher than the entire student population of many other UK universities.

The start of studying with the internet

The OU has always pioneered the use of new technologies for studying. Staff at the OU started to use CoSy, an asynchronous text based communication application, in 1986. By 1988, the University had a Personal Computing policy and had introduced three courses that required use of a computer. For example, the groundbreaking course DT200 chaired by Nick Heap. Enormously popular, in its first few years it had around 2,000 students. Geoff Einon & Steve Majithia were key players in the software development. It introduced students to applications such as word-processing and spreadsheets. Students communicated with each other with the early Internet using the CoSy conferencing system.  

The 1990s: changing curriculum

Expansion continued to be the keyword for the university during the 1990s. New areas of study included English law, modern languages and expanded programmes in most other faculties and schools. The introduction of named degrees as an alternative to the Open degree added to the university’s attractiveness to a growing audience of professionals who wanted to continue earning while they learned.

From the outset other countries had watched and learned from the Open University and while many nations chose to found their own institution, based on the OU model, others, such as former Eastern bloc countries and the new government in Ethiopia, partnered with the OU on delivering higher education.  

Another major OU partnership – with the BBC – reflected changing technologies, as the OU opted to deliver video teaching by DVD and replace its teaching broadcasts with peak-time BBC series available to a much broader audience.

The Open University and the BBC: OpenLearn

2000s: innovation in teaching methods

"The future of open and distance learning lies with technology - a technology that combines with human ingenuity to deliver even more possibilties." Brenda Gourley, Vice-Chancellor 2002-2009

The OU has been faithful to its mission of openness to methods. Over three decades the university was quick to harness the potential of new media for teaching and learning and from the mid-1990s began the massive exploitation of the internet that has made the OU the world's leading e-university.

'T171 You, your computer and the net' was an example of the use of the internet as a compulsory element in a course. It had its first full presentation in 2000.

From virtual microscopes to online tutorials, the students’ experience is enriched by e-media’s ability to bring students closer together with their peers, tutors, and the university itself.

The same tools have allowed the Open University to fulfil its mission of openness in new ways, above all through making many of its resources and materials available free of charge to a global audience. The OU was the first UK university to publish materials on iTunes U where they are freely available for download. And its OpenLearn site – making hundreds of hours of course material available – has already welcomed more than one million visitors.

The Open University on iTunes U


The University continues to experiment with new technologies, starting its own island in the virtual world SecondLife in 2006.

The Open University in SecondLife

2010-11: consolidation and new markets

In 2009 Martin Bean became the university's fifth Vice-Chancellor.

His arrival has coincided with a radical overhaul of the way higher education is funded, with far-reaching effects for universities and their students.  The Open University is not immune from its effects, but has succeeded in persuading government to make access to student loans available to part-time learners for the first time - an important step in establishing parity for part-timers.

Our strategy for these challenging times has three overlapping phases:

  1. Improve effectiveness, reduce cost and strengthen competitiveness
  2. Identify and exploit new opportunities within existing markets
  3. Identify and enter new markets in order to grow income

What is not in question is the University's commitment to remaining open to people, places, methods and ideas, building on our successes in order to serve new generations of learners demanding quality, flexibility and the best possible learning experience. 

Polling card for Jennie Lee MP, founder of The Open University

Jennie Lee

"I knew it had to be a university with no concessions, right from the very beginning. After all, I have gone through the mill myself, taking my own degree, even though it was a long time ago. I knew the conservatism and vested interests of the academic world. I didn't believe we could get it through if we lowered our standards."

Jennie Lee, Founder of The Open University

Walter Perry with Raymond Postgate of the BBC

Walter Perry

Walter Perry (left) with Raymond Postgate of the BBC

"I came to The Open University from a wholly traditional background...It wasn't that I had any deep-seated urge to mitigate the miseries of the depressed adult; it was that I was persuaded that the standard of teaching in conventional universities was pretty deplorable. It suddenly struck me that if you could use the media and devise course materials that would work for students all by themselves, then inevitably you were bound to affect - for good - the standard of teaching in conventional universities."


Earl Mountbatten at the formal opening of the University, with Sir Peter Venable

The Opening of the Open University

"We are open, first, as to people... Wherever there is an unprovided need for higher education, supplementing the existing provision, there is our constituency. There are no limits on persons."  Lord Crowther, The Open University Inaugural Lecture, 1969

Sir John Daniel

Sir John Daniel

"Over 11 years I officiated at 150 OU degree ceremonies in 10 countries. At those events I talked with some 50,000 graduates. ...Time and again, graduates told me that OU study changed their lives ... that it gave them greater confidence to develop their own lives and to contribute to the world around them.” Sir John Daniel, Vice-Chancellor 1990-2001