Archive for the ‘Complaints and concerns’ Category

50 objects for 50 years. No 33. Blithering opponents.

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

The quotations above manage to insult the students (Spectator) the founders (Christopher Chataway) the staff (Robert Jackson) the idea (The Times) and the Scots, Welsh, Irish and others not based in England (Times Educational Supplement). This was a university which failed as:

  • it was not a community of scholars, it failed as a university
  • it strove to be a university, it failed those best served by technical colleges and adult education provision
  •  it used television, it failed to educate and only managed to transmit
  • it was party political, it failed to be objective.

These criticisms had an impact. To prove it was intellectually sound the OU made strenuous efforts to present scholarly television programmes. as a result some of them ended up speaking to academic peers, not interested learners. To prove that students were being thoroughly tested to a high standard the OU’s assessment system has long been rigorous. For many years there were external examiners for every module, not simply every degree and there is checking on the marking of tutors through a system of monitoring and tutorial visits. The accusation that it was the creature of the Labour Party shifted. Some teaching materials were accused of bias.

However, slowly, the OU came to make the transition from an ‘electoral gimmick’ (to quote Chataway) to its current status of ‘national treasure’ (in the words of the Vice-Chancellor at another university). As it became more popular, so more politicians claimed it as their own. Winnie Ewing, Scottish National Party President 1987–2005, suggested that the honorary doctorate she received from the OU in 1993 was ‘in recognition of my role in establishing it’. One Liberal claimed that, ‘the idea owes its inception to a meeting at the Liberal Party Council at least a year earlier as any Liberal pamphlet for the year 1962 can amply demonstrate’.


Massive online and unhelpful?

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

The latest idea as to how to use technology for educational and commercial purposes is MOOCs. However, these massive online courses are not always presented in a supportive manner, it has been argued. The OU, with its traditions and ethos and skills can do better.

Unobservant journalism

Monday, November 12th, 2012

 Writing on 11th November journalist Carole Cadwalladr argued

When the Open University was launched in 1969, it was both radical and democratic. It came about because of improvements in technology – television – and it’s been at the forefront of educational innovation ever since. It has free content – on OpenLearn and iTunesU. But at its heart, it’s no longer radically democratic. From this year, fees are £5,000.

Her analysis of how the OU has supposedly lost its’ way is supported by personal testimony (more…)

Strikes in the history of the OU

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

During late March the flowers were out at Walton Hall and so were members of the University and College Union. They went on strike to defend pensions and jobs. The union argued that employer had failed to engage with the union’s claims regarding job security and pay and (in the case of the OU and other pre-92 HE institutions) the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme. At the same time UCU members were being asked to accept a 0.4% pay increase, despite RPI running at nearly 5%, and to also accept that there could be no national framework to defend jobs (threatened by government funding plans).

The OU has been affected by strikes in the past, not always by employees. (more…)

Economic cuts of the past

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Access to the online back issues of The Economist has been secured for OU staff. A glance through the archives indicates that in 1963 The Economist ‘warmly welcomed’ the OU and called it ‘one of the best things that he [Harold Wilson] has done’. In 1965 it said that the idea of a University of the Air had been ‘long supported by this journal’. In 1979 it reported that the OU had ‘moved away from the over-the-air teaching’ and noted the importance of regional centres and correspondence. To mark forty years of broadcasts it lapsed into ahistoric clichés. Although most of the course materials were printed and late-night television only started after a couple of years, here we are told that

OU lectures delivered remotely by hirsute professors, who dryly enumerated the laws of thermodynamics on late-night television, appealed only to the most dedicated of older people, determined to better themselves in their spare time

The median age of applicants in 1971 was 26-27 and if there were ‘bespectacled dons sporting dodgy double-knit jumpers’ then there was also some very well-presented teaching materials. Indeed an early criticism of the OU programmes was that they were ‘slickly professional’ (Conrad Russell, TES 1971).

While The Economist concludes that ‘the OU might turn out to offer a vision of the future’, an understanding of how that vision could be realised would be strengthened by a more sophisticated view of the development of the OU.


Monday, January 17th, 2011

 Gina Barreca noted that there are songs about the experience of attending college and university. However, there are not any commercial ones specifically about The Open University. If you know differently, or can supply the lyric sheets for ditties composed at summer school or for Christmas parties, do comment.

The BBC move to Walton Hall

Friday, October 1st, 2010

In August 1976 Michael Drake asked why, in  view of the reluctance of many of the BBC staff to move to Milton Keynes, the OU could not work with ITV instead (Open House, 31 August 1976)? Despite this possibility being raised the BBC continued to be unhappy about moving the OU operations from Alexandra Palace to Milton Keynes. The argument was made that this was because this would adversely affect the relationship between the OU and the BBC. Deputy General Secretary ABS, P Leech, felt that the move

would lead to a dominance of BBC staff  by the OU, would lead to a greater involvement in the control over areas of legitimate BBC interest and that a move of this sort would lead to the BBC staff losing their identity with the Corporation (RGJ/JFW 24 April 1977 notes of a meeting of 24 March 1977)

There had been tensions betwen the BBC and the oU and this discussion occured shortly before a dispute between the BBC and the OU about The Balcony (probably Jean Genet’s play, Le Balcon which was set in a brothel). In 1977 the BBC banned this and was rebuked by the Chancellor at the Alexandra Palace degree ceremony (Open House, 24 May 1977,  OH 5 July 1977).

What should the regions do?

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Should the OU be more centralized? Zvi Friedman, who joined the OU in 1970 and was later the Senior Systems Analyst, thought it should: (more…)

Is ‘rubbish’ distance education the future?

Thursday, June 24th, 2010


There were echoes of some of the debates about the OU which have occurred over the last half-century in a meeting in Brighton on 29th April 2010.  Debate about where HE is going based on an understanding of where it has been is welcome. To judge from the report it looks as if an understanding of the development of the OU could be of value to those debating the future of HE elsewhere.


Science and the BBC

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Today Open University scientist are regularly seen in all forms of news media and are currently most often seen providing high level comment on Iceland’s volcano cloud. Thirty years ago, a more controversial issue hit the headlines that also affected its close relationship with the BBC.

189-6In 1980 the BBC cancelled a lecture on nuclear arms by the Dean of Science Michael Pentz. The BBC told the University that is was ‘inappropriate and unsuitable’. The lecture had already been filmed and the cancellation prompted an outcry including an emergency motion in the Senate. The BBC was at the same time facing criticisism for its decision not to screen The War Game, a film about nuclear war made for the twentieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing in 1965 but not shown until 1985.

Pentz was a well known peace campaigner, a member of CND Council and Chair of the Milton Keynes Peace Campaign but he explained: ‘It is not appropriate in an educational lecture to indulge in polemics, but it is appropriate for the relevant facts to be drawn to public attention. I’m not a complete nit-wit and I realised that I had to be very careful.’

The lecture entitled Towards the final abyss? A scientist’s view of the nuclear arms race was the third in an Open Lecture series. It was finally broadcast in February 1981 on condition that it was followed by a studio discussion (see Sesame, 70, January/February 1981).

Mike Pentz, the Open University’s first Dean of Science, died 15 years ago this week. An obituary can be read here.