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The early 21st Century saw the OU embrace rapid technological progress, take openness to a new...

First students and first graduates

By 4 August 1970, the closing date for prospective students to apply, the new university had received some 42,000 applications for 25,000 places. Despite speculation that the new venture would attract bored housewives, women made up only 25 per cent of applicants.

In January 1971 the first students started studying. These students included 22 prisoners, the first of many to study at the OU. Over 30 per cent had less than two A levels or equivalent – the minimal qualification for entry to other British universities. Around 40 per cent were teachers – there was high demand as graduate teachers attracted higher pay and a credit exemption was offered for those already in possession of a teacher’s certificate.

Unfortunately, the send out of materials coincided with a postal strike, which caused a certain amount of disruption in the distribution of materials. Students received their first home experiment kits though the post - including the award-winning McArthur Microscope - a handheld microscope adapted for the University by the designer.

On 3 January, the first broadcast that went out to students and the wider public was Open Forum, a magazine-style introduction to the University. The first course broadcast was an introduction to the Maths foundation course presented by Norman Gowar.

Here is the opening clip from Open Forum 1 (1971).


It was not until December 1971 that the OU signed its first formal agreement with BBC which involved OU programmes being broadcast on BBC 2 and Radio 4 for up to 30 hours per week.

Students were offered face-to-face tutorials and other support from their regional offices. However from 1976 foundation students were allocated a combined tutor-counsellor, rather than a separate tutor and counsellor.

Along with students came student representation. The Open University Students’ Association was formally established late in 1972 and elected its first officers in December. The first president was Mrs Millie Marsland. From 1977 all students were automatically members.

In 1972 the number of students increased to 36,000 with the proportion of teachers down to a third and the proportion of women increasing significantly. The number of internal postgraduates reached 50.

At the end of 1972, 900 students graduated after two years of study due to credit exemptions. On 23 June 1973 the first degree ceremony was broadcast live on BBC2. Among the first honorary graduates were Jennie Lee, Michael Young, Jock Campbell, Chairman of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation and Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC. Harold Wilson had to wait until 18 May 1974 to be awarded an honorary degree.

The publicity surrounding the first graduates boosted application numbers but at the same time the Conservative government reduced the target total student population from 55,000 to 42,000.

Under pressure from the government the University launched a pilot admissions scheme for school leavers (18-20 year olds) in 1974 with limited success.

Between 1971 and 1979 the student body quadrupled to 70,000. By the end of 1970s, The Open University was producing 6,000 graduates a year, as well as almost 150 higher degree graduates in the first decade.  

The Open University was both pilloried for being a 'housewives' university' and celebrated for allowing women an opportunity to enter higher education that would have otherwise been unavailable. Open Forum 7 (1975) focussed on women students. Here is a short extract.