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1963-65: The University of the Air

In March 1963 a Labour Party study group chaired by Lord Taylor reported on Labour’s attitude to higher education. It proposed a ‘University of the Air’ to address the continued exclusion of lower income groups from education.

Also in 1963, Harold Wilson became leader of the Labour Party. On 8 September he made 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 technical standards, on the basis of a University of the Air and of nationally organised correspondence college courses.

On 1 October 1963 at the Labour Party conference in Scarborough he expanded further:

It is designed to provide an opportunity for those, who, for one reason or another, have not been able to take advantage of higher education, to now do so with all that the TV and radio state-sponsored correspondence courses, the facilities of a university for setting and marking papers, conducting examinations and awarding degrees, can provide.

In October 1964 the Labour Party won the election, Wilson became Prime Minister and the proposals were to became a reality. Jennie Lee was initially appointed as Minister for the Arts in the Ministry of Works. In March 1965, Lee was moved to the Department of Education and Science and additionally tasked with delivering the University of the Air.

For two years previously, the department had been working with John Scupham, Controller of Educational Broadcasting at the BBC on a ‘College of the air’. However, Lee was determined that the new organisation should be a university with no compromise on quality: ‘I knew it had to be a university with no concessions, right from the very beginning…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.’

Lee put the idea of the University of the Air before the Ministerial Committee on Broadcasting, a standing Cabinet Committee.

This set up an Advisory Committee chaired by Lee herself, working directly to the Wilson to explore ‘educational functions and content.’ It had completed its work by 4 August 1965. The advisory committee established the principle of open access:

Enrolment as a student of the University should be open to everyone … irrespective of educational qualifications, and no formal entrance requirement should be imposed.

See 1966-68: The 'Open' University takes shape for the next stage of The Open University's development.