An inaugural fanfare for the common man

In June 2013 it will be have been 40 years since The Open University hosted its first graduation ceremony. While the political and social landscape has undergone many changes since then, the sense of excitement and pride remains today. Openminds looked back on 1973 in this article:

In its 44-year history, the OU has hosted more than 700 graduation ceremonies in locations from Shetland to Singapore. But the very first, in 1973, proved to be an operation requiring organisational precision in what was to be the OU’s only nationwide ceremony.

Due to the volume of people wishing to attend, the Milton Keynes venue Walton Hall was traded in for the grand Alexandra Palace in London, which could accommodate 6,000 people. This allowed the 867 graduates to invite their families.

‘Alexandra Palace had better facilities than Milton Keynes,’ says Ben Palmer, Director of Assessment, Credit and Qualifications, who takes on the role of Graduate Presenter in some ceremonies. ‘And there were people travelling from all over the UK to attend. There was one story of a woman who came from Australia to see her son collect his degree.’

A report by Les Holloway in this magazine’s predecessor, Sesame, describes the momentous day: ‘The crowds plod up the steep slopes from their cars and buses. Most are serious faced, some nervously cheerful, some deep in abstraction. Inside the faded Victorian splendour of Ally Pally there is a disciplined bustle. Most of the graduates have elected to wear gowns. Some who had rejected the formality of academic dress find their resolution weakening.’

The first honorary Doctors of the University were also commended at Alexandra Palace; 10 men and women, including Lord Gardiner (Chancellor-elect), Jane Drew (first woman President of the Architectural Association), Paulo Freire (Brazilian educational pioneer, then in exile) and Michael Young, noted in reports of the time as ‘probably the first person to propose an open university in Britain’.

Addressing the graduates, Vice-Chancellor Walter Perry said that for him the day marked the culmination of five years in the most exciting job in education: ‘You, the graduates, were the goal that we dimly discerned through the mists of doubt and uncertainty.’

Speaking of the innovative distance learning formula, Perry continued: ‘Those who succeed have exhibited not only the necessary intellectual capacity, but also qualities of staying power and determination that will, I predict, come to be regarded and expected as the particular hallmark of holders of the BA of The Open University.’ The procession then left the Great Hall, accompanied by Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man.

The OU now hosts on average 20 degree ceremonies a year in venues around the world. ‘The excitement at our ceremonies can often overcome some people,’ Ben says. ‘At the Vice-Chancellor’s first degree ceremony in Belfast, the first person to come across the stage did a somersault, stood up and shook his hand. The look on the face of the person who was second in line was something to wonder at.’

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