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Sir Austin Bide (1915-2008) was Chair of the Open University's Visiting Committee appointed by the...

Peter Venables

Peter Venables (1904-1979) was the Chair of the Planning Committee of The Open University (1967-1968) and served as the University’s first Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Council from 1969 to 1974.

Venables was born in Birkenhead, the second of the seven children of a Post Office clerk, and attended Birkenhead secondary school and Liverpool University, where he obtained a first-class degree in chemistry, an education diploma, a PhD and a research fellowship.

Spells in Leicester and Essex saw Venables move from chemistry to administration, and in 1947 Venables was appointed principal of the Royal Technical College, Salford. He became involved in creation of the eight colleges of advanced technology (CATs), of which Salford was one. He later moved to Birmingham CAT and was involved in its transition to become Aston University, where he became Vice-Chancellor in 1966. This vision was of expanded opportunities for vocational training for all who could benefit. He also became chair of the Independent Television Authority's adult education advisory committee (1965-9), of the BBC further education advisory council and of the Crowther Committee.

In 1967, as vice-chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Venables was asked by Jennie Lee to become chairman of the planning committee of the Open University. As a condition of accepting he insisted that the membership be drawn from the worlds of education and broadcasting, with no politicians appointed. The Report of the Planning Committee published in December 1968 was the blueprint for The Open University and Venables was instrumental in the appointment of the first Officers, the siting of the University and the creation of the partnership with the BBC.

The committee was dissolved in 1969 when the Open University received its royal charter, which named Venables first pro-chancellor and chairman of council, a position he held for five years. According to the first Vice-Chancellor Walter Perry, Venables saw his role as that of ‘ensuring that the policies of the university were in harmony with the spirit of the charter, with the views of the lay members of the governing body, and with the motivation and commitment of the staff.’ Perry and Venables worked closely to defend the infant OU, for example, in 1969 when Labour Chancellor Roy Jenkins wanted to revise down the initial intake of students from 25,000 to 5-10,000, they persuaded Ted Short, Education Secretary, to resist.

In 1976, The Open University again called upon Venables to chair a committee on continuing education with a view to making recommendations on implementing the charter objective, ‘to provide for the educational well-being of the community generally’, a phrase thought to be drafted by Venables himself. His report was published in 1977 and led to a significant expansion, laying the groundwork for the current Open University Business School and Faculty of Health and Social Welfare. The Venables building on the Walton Hall campus was officially opened in 1976 (see picture above). Venables died at his home in Birmingham in 1979.

Other relevant stories include 1966-68: The 'Open University' takes shape and 1968-69: A University opens.