Joan Bellamy, 1926-2023. Dean of Arts 1984-90

Posted on March 26th, 2023 at 3:32 pm by Daniel Weinbren

Joan Bellamy, nee Shaw, 1926-2023, was an Open University tutor, Staff Tutor and between 1984 and 1990, Dean of Arts. She contributed to a number of courses, modules, including for A101, with Colin Cunningham, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow; The Roots of Western Society; Studying the Arts (1977) and for A102 she co-edited Culture – Production, consumption. She provided ‘Milton and marvell’ for A203 (1981) and for A205, Culture and Belief in Europe, 1450-1600: Royal and Religious Authority. The British Isles. (1996). She also wrote for the OU-focused journal Teaching at a Distance, notably in 1978, an article on ‘Special Support for Students with Academic Difficulties: Experiences in Yorkshire’ and, with John Purkis, Milton Study Guide.

The daughter of Hilda and Tom Shaw (a coal miner and Labour councillor) she grew up in West Yorkshire, read English at Leeds and in the 1940s worked full time for the Communist Party of GB. After her husband, Ron Bellamy, a Marxist economist at Leeds University, accepted a Senior Lectureship at the University of Ghana the couple spent 1963-66 in Ghana where Joan worked in the press office of President Kwame Nkrumah. After a coup ousted Nkrumah the couple returned to Leeds, where Ron became Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Social Studies, 1970-72 while in 1970 Joan (as Communist Parliamentary candidate for Leeds East) received 513 votes. Following the demise of the CPGB she joined one of its successors, her political position unchanged. In 1988, in a collection of essays entitled In search of Victorian values she assessed gender relations while Ron contributed a Marxian economic analysis. Having written for the journal of the South African Communist Party, The African Communist and Communist pamphlets (eg Homes, Jobs, Immigration: the Facts, 1968 and Unite against racism: defeat the immigration bill, 1971 and a ‘Bibliography on Africa’ for the Marx Memorial Library Bulletin (1971), Joan turned to literature. She edited, with fellow OU academics Anne Laurence and Gill Perry, Women, Scholarship and Criticism C. 1790-1900: Gender and Knowledge (2000) and wrote More precious than rubies: Mary Taylor, Friend of Charlotte Bronte, Strong Minded Woman (2002).

Her interest in empowering people and understanding democracy as a process pervaded her work at the OU and her wider contributions. In 1975 she wrote in the CPGB weekly Comment that to rely on the 1976 Race Relations Act was to ‘ignore the potential of the democratic participation of those most bitterly affected by discrimination, the black people themselves’. In 1992, for Labour History Review she contributed a piece on ‘The use of trade union banners in education’. She reported on how she had asked students to analyse trade union banners, her aim being ‘to illuminate the lives, values and culture of sections of the organised working class of the past’. When, in 2018 she offered, via the Guardian, a critique of the proposed developments of OU Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks, it was in terms of a defence of the OU’s social democratic reputation. She opposed that which could ‘be the final hammer blows to the drawn-out process of demolishing one of Labour’s greatest achievements’. Having travelled to Iraq, Syria, Mongolia, Ghana and Moscow, she returned to the county of her birth and long retained an engagement with the Brontes and with women and Victorian fiction.

Context of OU creation

Posted on January 12th, 2023 at 5:23 pm by Daniel Weinbren

The notion of  technology supporting freedom was behind Wilson’s ‘university of the air’ idea. This article provides a bit of context. 

Josh Patel, ‘The Puzzle of Lionel Robbins: How a Neoliberal Economist Expanded Public University Education in 1960s Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 2022, pp1-26.

Lionel Robbins (1898–1984) has been identified as one of the leading ‘neoliberal’ economists of his day. However, his name remains irrevocably linked with the massive state-funded ‘social democratic’ expansion of higher education recommended by the Robbins Report (1963). This article explores this paradox. Examining Robbins’s writings on higher education in the context of his economic thought shows how he blended the liberalism of Adam Smith and J. S. Mill, neoliberal economics, and growing demands for personal choice. For Robbins, the atrocities of the Nazi and Soviet regimes demonstrated how the state armed with new modern technologies could endanger freedom and prosperity. But the ‘good society’ might wield technology to secure conditions of freedom and choice. Robbins advocated a system of state-subsidized universities based on ‘student demand’ and which generated social and individual returns. This system would perpetuate what Robbins called the ‘creed of freedom’: a reimagined interdisciplinary liberal education through which students would understand the importance of their specialism to liberal capitalism. His thought on higher education indicates something of the dynamism of post-war British liberalism and the range of support for higher education expansion. It further counters the impression of the British universities as sites of a static and conservative liberal education.

Open to people, places, methods and ideas? Developing the pedagogy of the Open University

Posted on November 30th, 2022 at 11:08 am by Daniel Weinbren

D Weinbren, Keynote at the Technological University, Dublin, January 2022


Available to students from January 1971, the UK-based Open University (OU), by being open to part-time adult learners regardless of their prior qualifications or disabilities, challenged the pre-Second World War status quo. This was when a very small minority of the population in Western societies, often men from the social elite, attended universities. The OU modelled how a central state could seek to direct technological, educational, cultural and economic developments and, through the use of short-term, teaching–only contracts and student fees, normalise a quasi-market within the university sector. At the same time its social democratic ethos, embodied in its Royal Charter objective, ‘to promote the educational well-being of the community generally’, informed its development of learner-centred collaborative engagement. This enabled it to support learners in Britain, in Ireland, including in the H Blocks and in many other countries. Its pedagogies will be illuminated through an assessment of its precedents, personalities and politics.

Book about OU history. Degrees of Freedom: Prison Education at The Open University

Posted on November 30th, 2022 at 11:01 am by Daniel Weinbren

Degrees of Freedom: Prison Education at The Open University edited by Rod Earle & James Mehigan, Policy, 2019.

For half a century The Open University has provided higher education to those in prison. This book gives voice to ex-prisoners whose lives have been transformed by the education they received. It offers vivid personal testimonies, reflective vignettes and academic analysis of prison life and education in prison. It has chapters by both OU staff and former students.

Journal article about OU students

Posted on November 30th, 2022 at 10:29 am by Daniel Weinbren

‘The Open University and Prison Education in the UK – the first 50 years’, Incarceration, Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, 7, 1, 2021, (D Weinbren, J Mehigan, R Earle and A Pike).

Abstract: In 2019, The Open University (henceforth, The OU), based in Milton Keynes in the UK, celebrated its 50th anniversary. Since 1971 it has pioneered the delivery of Higher Education in prisons and other secure settings. Some 50 years on, in 2021 there is much to celebrate and still more to learn. In this article we briefly review the establishment of the OU in 1969 and explore how it has maintained access to higher education in the prison system. It draws from a collection of essays and reflections on prison learning experiences developed by OU academics and former and continuing OU students in prison (Earle & Mehigan, 2019). We begin by outlining the unique features of the OU and the circumstances of its establishment in the post-war period in the UK. We then present an account of its work with students in prison in the UK (and elsewhere) and conclude with some critical reflections on the place and prospects of higher education in an expanding Higher Education sector and an escalating preference for carceral punishment in the UK. No country on Earth can match the penal preferences of the United States, but the UK’s habit of slipstreaming behind its massive carceral bulk tends to obscure the fact that the UK punishes more people with imprisonment, and with longer sentences, than any other Western European state. It also manages to exceed the United States in rates of racial disproportionality in its carceral population (Phillips, 2013). Despite these outlier features in incarceration, a silver lining to the carceral cloud can be found in The OU’s pioneering work with imprisoned men and women.

Keywords: education, prison, prisoner, The Open University

Ian Donnachie. An appreciation. The Scotsman 24 July 2020

Posted on July 27th, 2020 at 12:30 pm by Daniel Weinbren










50 objects for 50 years. No 50. The Philip Sully Building

Posted on April 15th, 2019 at 2:20 pm by Daniel Weinbren

The focus in this posting is on the final object of 50 in the series, the people at the heart of the OU, the learners.

← President Cath. No longer a duck, she fits the bill.

It was contributed by Cath Brown. She is well qualified to write about students. She been a student  (she has a BSc in Molecular Sciences (i.e. Chemistry) and a BSc Open (mainly physics, engineering and history) and she is currently studying Computing at the OU. In addition, she has been a STEM Faculty Representative on 2016-18 Central Executive Committee, has chaired an Students Association affiliated society (OU Alchemy) held various OUSA posts and moderated an online forum. Currently she is President of OUSA.


Philip Sully with then OU Chancellor Betty Boothroyd on the occasion of the naming of the building

Visitors to the OU’s Milton Keynes campus will see buildings named after many illustrious figures – Perry and Horlock for the first and second Vice-Chancellors, Wilson and Jennie Lee for our political founders, and eminent scientists Alan Turing and Robert Hooke. But the Philip Sully building is the only one (to date) named after a student.

When the building was named in 2006, Philip had completed 61 modules, and his qualifications included two undergraduate degrees, a masters and a doctorate. I somehow doubt he has stopped studying since then – the signs of OU addiction are clear to see!

It’s good to be reminded, in this era in which education is too often seen as solely a means to an end, of the joy and the value of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The Philip Sully building thus serves as a splendid symbol of lifelong learning.

Our 50th object – the building – is here standing for Philip, and by extension all OU students, without whom there would be no university. What have these students looked like over the years?

In the early days, there were a significant number of teachers who’d taken the accelerated post-war training, but were now in search of a degree.  These days, there’s still that teaching link – it’s a particularly popular career with OU graduates – but it’s often classroom assistants looking for the degree to embark on initial teacher training.

The OU was once christened the “university of the second chance”. Being told that university was “not for the likes of you” was all too common in days gone by; in 1950 only 3.4% of young people participated in higher education, and this was only up to 8.4% in 1970 and just 19.6% still in 1990.  So  the OU was the natural destination for many whose background had hitherto prevented them pursuing that degree.  Even if they had the formal qualifications for admission to a “brick” university, part-time or flexible courses at conventional institutions were unheard of, so for the employed aspiring graduate, the OU was almost the only game in town.

In the 21st century, we are edging up to half of young people entering higher education (though who knows whether government proposals will knock that down again). So there are fewer of the “second chancers”. Today’s “typical” OU student (in so far as such a creature exists) is in their 20s, working, and aiming to improve or change their career. In a surprising move, a fifth of OU students are now studying at full time intensity.   Then we have the students with disabilities for whom the OU is a much more feasible and flexible option, and the students who are carers, who can only contemplate studying if they can fit it around the demands of their lives.  Many of these students are very time poor – fitting in study around family and work requires taking advantage of any free moment to keep up.  Back in the 70s and 80s, OU students rose early and stayed up late to catch their course TV programmes; the videos may be all online now, but just as many students are keeping those same hours to carve out some study time.

But the OU still has students from their teens to their nineties, and any broad assumptions about their motivations, their circumstances and their lives are pretty well destined to be wrong.

So are there still students like Philip around – learning for pure pleasure? Most certainly; the rumours of the death of the “leisure learner” are greatly exaggerated (There is even a Facebook group called “OU Study Addicts” with hundreds of members).   In England at least, it’s expensive for a “hobby” now, but there are still students who aim to never leave the OU, some taking advantage of the second degree funding now available for STEM subjects to keep going, others prioritising their studies over more frivolous activities such as holidays!

Of course the OU student experience, like the student experience anywhere, is not just about studying. Many OU students say they’ve made friends for life.  In the early days, the tutorial, the summer school and the unofficial local study groups were where connections were made – a fantastic set up if you happened to click with someone local to you.  The advent of widespread internet access opened up new additional ways to “meet”; students of the 2000s will remember the FirstClass conferencing system with affection, but 2019 students are more likely to speak of Facebook and WhatsApp.

OU Students Association first President Millie Marsland – clearly a force to be reckoned with! She maintained her job as a Headteacher whilst leading the Association.

Like any other student body, OU students have had their own Students Association for most of the lifetime of the university. The Association (known for many years as OUSA) has (amongst other things) pushed for students to have a greater voice in the university (resulting on representation throughout the governance structure), developed its own support service Peer Support, started its own charity for students in financial need OUSET, and supports a raft of Clubs and Societies, including the strangely named  TADpoles. This society was formed by students of the course TAD292 Art and the Environment, chaired by Simon Nicholson, which had its last presentation in 1985…. But the society is still going strong in 2019!.

The Association’s video gives a fuller picture of OUSA history.

What will the OU student of the future be like? Whilst the financial pressures of the day and the demise of the “career for life” suggests that young(ish) career-changers and promotion-hunters may come to dominate our student body, let us make sure that our university always has room for lifelong learners like Philip, and continues to offer that enriching broad curriculum that has changed so many students’ lives.





50 objects for 50 years. No 49. FutureLearn

Posted on April 15th, 2019 at 1:45 pm by Daniel Weinbren

In 2013 FutureLearn,  a private company wholly owned by The Open University, launched its first courses. This Massive Open Online Course social learning platform connects the OU to many universities in the UK and elsewhere and to institutions including the British Council, the British Library, the British Museum, and the National Film and Television School. FutureLearn also works with professional bodies including the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Marks & Spencer. Learners can study and earn credits towards a degree from a UK university.


Starting with the University of East Anglia’s ‘The secret power of brands’ FutureLearn has offered courses in science, history, programming and dentistry and hundreds of other topics. It has recently started to deliver digital skills programmes as part of the Institute of Coding, a consortium of universities, employers and outreach organisations seeking to build digital talent at degree level and above. It includes ‘The IoC guide to kick-starting your career with 21C skills’ from the University of Leeds.

The first OU postgraduate qualification to be offered on FutureLearn, the PG Certificate in Open and Distance Education went live in February 2019. Students can study a free fortnight-long taster and then click through to further programs which can lead to a Certificate, a Diploma or a Masters qualification. The module H880, provides hands-on experience of a range of learning technologies. Students can explore the processes of designing, implementing and critiquing elearning and the ideas that underpin these processes.

This company does not subscribe to the OU’s statement of being open to people, places methods and ideas. Rather, ‘FutureLearn’s purpose is to transform access to education’. The company promises to ‘strive to transform education and change our learners’ lives, our partners’ businesses and the world in the process’. While the OU offers degrees, FutureLearn offers to ‘make online learning enjoyable for our learners and our partners alike’.

In addition to co-ordinating the activities of universities, specialist institutions and centres of excellence the OU is central to the FutureLearn Academic Network  a network of universities and other partners. FLAN members share their research into the design, analysis and evaluation of massive open online courses. .Activities include analysis of learning to inform design of courses, design of innovative approaches to informal open learning, different approaches to evaluation of learning effectiveness at scale and the publication of research. FLAN also holds conferences and supports new researchers.


50 objects for 50 years. No 48. The Legacy Garden.

Posted on March 18th, 2019 at 1:24 am by Daniel Weinbren

‘A society grows great when we plant trees in whose shade we shall never see’.


This quote is carved onto a stone plaque at the centre of the legacy garden opened by Martin Bean in 2013.  It epitomises the generosity of our Alumni and donors who contribute to the Open University’s research projects and assist students in need.

The garden is dedicated to them and when you stroll through the gates you can view along the wall of the garden the plaques of dedication to the contributors to the future of the OU. These grow in number every year and the garden is often busy as family and fellow alumni attend events on Campus and view them as part of their tour.

Meticulously designed and planted, ‘the garden symbolises the generosity of donors, commencing with white perennial flowering plants, then bursting into full colour to indicate progress and fruition. As the legacy is living and long lasting, so is the garden.  White is still present throughout the flowering seasons to remind us of the gift’.

With its plants attracting wildlife such as birds, bees and butterflies it is a wonderful, peaceful place to pause for a while for reflection and rest and is enjoyed by members of staff based at Walton Hall campus all through the year.

Originally a kitchen garden providing sustenance to the former residents of Walton Hall on the original estate, it is now is a beautiful space on a campus working to feed students thirst for knowledge.

With thanks to the author, Sarah Frain, a Support Manager in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University.

50 objects for 50 years. No 47. Europe

Posted on March 11th, 2019 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren

As Brexit approaches and the UK’s relationship with the EU shifts, this week’s object which can be employed to illuminate the history of the OU is Continental Europe.

The Award Ceremony at Versailles , 2014

The OU has been teaching within the UK since 1971 and in other parts of Europe since 1972. The arrangements for teaching students outside the UK have undergone several changes in that time. Between 1972 and 1992, the University served three broad categories of student studying within the wider Europe: those starting their studies in the UK, those admitted under ‘special schemes’ in the Benelux countries and in the Republic of Ireland; and Services personnel and their families admitted under special schemes in Germany and Cyprus. In 1992 when the European Single Market was introduced, the University extended direct entry to any person domiciled in the EU and in other parts of western Europe.

The first organised move into western Europe was in 1982. During 1981 a Working Group established by the Student Affairs and Awards Board on study provision for those resident overseas issued its report. The report contained proposals, that were accepted by Senate, on the means by which the University’s provision for those resident outside the UK might be rationalised and extended.

The first step in the scheme would be the presentation of a small core of courses, not including ones with Home Experiment Kits or summer schools, drawn from the associate student programme. As the scheme developed, gradually more courses could be added to this initial core and the scheme extended geographically. Ultimately, the courses might be offered to foreign nationals.

Having approved the general arrangements, Senate gave its consent to a specific proposal to offer OU courses to UK nationals resident in Brussels. Five courses were offered in 1982. Applicants had to apply through the British Council in Brussels which would place a block booking with the University and arrange for the subsequent distribution of course materials to students. For all other purposes, students would be attached to an OU region and would have their tutors and counsellors within that Region.

In the event, 45 students registered. After consultation it was decided that all students in the scheme should be attached to the University’s Northern Region: students were therefore allocated to course tutors in that region, and the region was also able to recruit and appoint two associate student counsellors in Brussels. The course tutors did not solely act as ‘correspondence’ tutors: they were able to visit Brussels on two occasions to hold day schools. In 1983 the scheme was expanded to ten courses and made available to non-British nationals in Belgium.

The OU’s presence grew. It came to offer prisoners in western Europe the same modules that were offered to those in British gaols. Peter Regan, a senior counsellor and the manager for Spain Portugal, Greece, Belgium and Gibraltar, recalled although the Vice Chancellor travelled to the continent to present awards to students, ‘we didn’t take many orders from Walton Hall; they didn’t intervene in our European operations’ and that students in prison received support from OU staff. Sometimes informal arrangements were made, on one occasion an Italian nun smuggled TMAs in and out of a prison. Liz Manning, a senior counsellor, and country manager for Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France arranged for a tutor to travel from Vienna to a remote prison in Austria to tutor ‘Michael’. On graduation permission was granted for him to travel to Vienna to receive his degree certificate from Liz: ‘I made a speech to an audience of our office staff, a former fellow prisoner, the British Consul General and his [Michael’s] social worker. We then went out for lunch before he returned to prison’.

By 2002 were about 6,000 OU students registered in western Europe (‘OU title fails to convince’ Times Higher September 27, 2002). However, the end of the Cold War saw a reduction in interest in western European unity and, with a new OU Chancellor who had not reached the position through holding an academic post, the balance between a recognition of the importance of the market and the benefits of promoting egalitarian values were thrown into a different perspective. Minutes from a July 2011 meeting of the governing body show the university’s vice-chancellor Martin Bean confirmed that the institution was planning to “decommit from face-to-face tuition using (associate lecturers) based in Europe”. There were over 100 academics in nine countries and seven academic-related staff members in six countries supporting 9,000 students studying OU courses in English in mainland Europe. As well as support from a tutor, some had access to online forums and face-to-face tutorials depending on their location. A report concluded that European operations were ‘expensive and inefficient’ and in February 2012 Council took the decision to reduce face-to-face operations and focus on online delivery. OUSA voiced its concerns about the change. Roger Walters, president of the OU branch of the University and College Union, said the plans were ‘deeply regrettable’ and added that ‘It is extremely sad that very many long-standing and highly committed people who have performed an invaluable service for the OU are at risk of losing their jobs… We believe this is a bad move that could damage the [university’s] reputation in Europe’.

While Residential schools continued to be offered outside the UK the OU’s financial director Miles Hedges, noted that the pattern of distribution of OU students across Continental Europe made it difficult to operate the tutor/student allocation process efficiently. The result was that many associate lecturers had tutor groups where few, if any, students were based in their own country. Moreover, the OU had to operate 12 different payroll systems, deal with 12 different legal and fiscal systems and there were high social security costs and fluctuating exchange rates.

The Times Higher 26 February 2012 found an Associate Lecturer who worked on the Continent

It’s already such a cliche to moan about the gradual decline of higher education’s values as it adopts a more ‘businesslike’ approach that it might seem superfluous to add yet one more voice to the tired old chorus of complaint. Certainly the current direction being taken by the OU is far from unique in this respect. Indeed, it might even be argued that by working for the university in mainland Europe – where students have always been obliged to pay full fees – one is already conniving in a kind of ‘expansion of the customer base’ that is fully consistent with such a market-oriented culture. And yet at the same time, even under such circumstances, many OU staff on the Continent still maintain a certain commitment to some of the idealistic, egalitarian values on which the institution was founded – values such as universal access to learning, which, as we can testify from our everyday work, can be life-transforming. It’s these values that some of us fear are being eroded by this ongoing cultivation of a more openly commercial mindset. The latest cost-saving measures, which will have a massive impact not only on our livelihoods but also the whole quality of student support on the European mainland, are a clear case in point.

Europe remains a major interest to the OU. There are modules which provide opportunities to study it, for example the history module A327, and there have been events for students, such as this one. There is Brexit guidance here. Many staff have assessed the likely impacts of Brexit and the subject features on a second level Politics module.