Skip to content The Open University

Featured articles

The University had suffered three years of cuts starting in 1983. At the start, savings were made...

John Daniel

John Daniel

John Daniel served as The Open University's Vice-Chancellor from 1990 to 2001.

John Daniel was born in Surrey in 1942 and lived there until he was seven, when his father died. After stints in Lancashire and Oxfordshire he read Metallurgy at Oxford University and went on to study for a PhD in Paris. After witnessing the upheavals of 1968, Daniel became Assistant Professor at the University of Montreal, at the same time beginning to study for a Masters degree in educational technology. The course involved a three month internship and Daniel managed to get a placement at The Open University in 1972. He recalled: ‘I think it’s not being grandiloquent to say I had a conversion on the road to Damascus. I was just absolutely overwhelmed by what was happening...I felt I’d seen the next generation of university.’

Appointments followed at the Télé-université in Montreal (Directeur des Études, 1973-77), Athabasca University (Vice-President for Learning Services, 1978-80), Concordia University, Montreal (Vice-Rector, Academic, 1980-84) and Laurentian University, North Ontario (President, 1984-90).

In 1990 Daniel was appointed as The Open University’s third Vice-Chancellor. He said: ‘I felt to be Vice-Chancellor of the OU was the most exciting job in higher education anywhere.’ He was knighted by The Queen for services to higher education in 1994 and holds 30 honorary doctorates from universities in 17 countries. Lifting it off the page: an oral portrait of OU people, Ed. Tim Dagleish, 1995, contains some of his recollections:

I didn’t realise how enormous changes in the first three years would be. Our whole funding changed, but having seen many ways of funding I wasn’t freaked out. I sincerely think that to have worked in North America was a better preparation for the nineties in Britain than actually working in Britain because in some ways we are going in that direction...There’s a basic satisfaction that this is a noble endeavour because one is giving people confidence, greater autonomy, control over their lives and they are amazingly appreciative. I remember going round the first year trying to shake out from students complaints and beefs about what needed fixing – it was difficult. They were so scared that if you touched anything the whole thing would collapse. The other thing is, the OU seems to be involved in every major change taking place in society. We’re so plugged into everything, that makes it tremendously exciting. It’s that feeling than an institution that started off as a marginal, oddball, funny kind of thing, is now at the centre of the system.

As well as overseeing the change in funding system, some of the issues Sir John picks out for comment from his time at the OU are:

·         the changing relationship with the BBC;

·         the move to course-based student registration and its decentralisation;

·         the absorption of the Council for National Academic Awards into the OU as OU Validation Services, and its Quality Support Centre, which became the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information

·         Changes to the curriculum including the abolition of the second foundation course requirement, the introduction of the BSc, the freedom to begin study with second level courses, the introduction of named degrees, support for credit transfer, N/SVQs and foundation degrees, introduction of the PGCE, modern languages and law.

·         International expansion

·         Introduction of new technologies, including the creation of the Knowledge Media Institute and the integrating new systems and technologies into lifelong learning (INSTILL) project

·         Development of a fundraising operation

Sir John Daniel left the OU in 2001 to become UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education and went on to become President of the Commonwealth Of Learning in 2004. He became a Fellow of The Open University in 2002.

Among Sir John's 300 publications are his books Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education (Kogan Page, 1996) and Mega-Schools, Technology and Teachers: Achieving Education for All (Routledge, 2010). His speeches as Vice-Chancellor of The Open University are available and he writes a regular blog.