Archive for the ‘50 objects’ Category

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

Monday, April 15th, 2019

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

Monday, April 15th, 2019

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.

Monday, March 18th, 2019

‘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

Monday, March 11th, 2019

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.

50 objects for 50 years. No. 46. The Home Experiment Kit

Monday, March 4th, 2019

One of the criticisms made by The Times of the proposed ‘university of the air’ was that ‘the very term is an illusion in the sense that it holds out hopes that it cannot possibly fulfil’. It went on

to encourage hopes that the television viewer will be offered the range and depth of courses open to the university student. This would be misleading nonsense.

What The Times missed was the innovation of Home Experiment Kits. In its first year the OU sent out 33,000 home experiment kits. The first science ones had 136 items. Each included a tiny microscope. The first technology module, The Man-Made World: a Foundation Course, T100 (1972–79), included a home experiment kit with a simple binary computing device, a logic kit, a control/analogue kit and a noise measurement meter. Using the last of these items, students contributed towards the production of a national noise map. They also learned to build their knowledge using more than one medium. For The Digital computer, TM222 (1983– 91) students could experiment with both software and hardware using the (H)ome (E)lectronic (K)it compu(TOR) – HEKTOR. HEKTOR could be plugged into a TV which became its monitor and plugged into a cassette recorder for storage. Initially students were encouraged to write programs in BASIC but later it was used for other purposes, including on a control engineering course.

The HEKTOR III microcomputer system.

Experiments at home were not always popular with posties or indeed at home. Student Matt Kendall recalled that a ‘matrimonial’ resulted from his experiment involving suspending a brick in the airing cupboard. However, there were integral to the OU and it was proud of them. One advertisement featured a student changing a nappy with a home experiment kit in the background.

Steven Rose, the OU’s first professor of biology, established the Brain Research Group, now the British Neuroscience Association. This was important in the development of the new field of neuroscience. He insisted that the OU engage in research and

that we were going to teach science, not “about science’. … Our view was that an OU science graduate should be able to compete on level terms with those from any other university when it came to going on to a science-based career, including research. And teaching science meant, above all, lab experience.

The OU also posted out plastic brains that could be taken apart for study and then reassembled.




50 objects for 50 years. No 45. Drake Court

Monday, February 25th, 2019

The court, to be found around the back of the Gardiner Building, is named after Michael Drake, the first Dean of Social Sciences. He is also why Social Sciences courses are prefixed ‘D’. He recalled how in late 1968 or early 1969 the VC’s Committee of the OU (now the VCE) met.

An item on the agenda was to give a letter to each of the proposed Foundation courses and all courses thereafter.  Some letters were easy; ‘S’ for Science, ‘E’ for Education, ‘A’ for Arts etc.  But what about Social Sciences?  SS seemed inappropriate and anyway two letters would double inputting time.  I piped up – ‘Isn’t it obvious?  ‘O.K, D it is’ and Joe Clinch then Assistant Secretary, minuted it.

Now an Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, Michael Drake contributed to numerous modules both in print and on the television and radio. He has encouraged communication between staff, been active in the local history society and his recollections have appeared in the local press. A longer recording has been made for the OU Archives. Much of his research and teaching focused on the population studies (he studied half-a-million baptism, marriage and burial records from Morley Wapentake, Yorkshire as part of an early project). He wanted to bring elements from the social sciences together with elments from the traditions associated with historians.

Building on his interest in the integration of a popular interest in family history with the disciplines of history and the social sciences Michael Drake and colleagues developed a series of OU modules. Historical Sources and the Social Scientist, D301, which was presented 1974-1988, enabled students to engage in ‘explorations of the past undertaken for the explicit purpose of advancing social scientific enquiry’. Students’ history dissertations, on topics of their choice, employed social scientific methods to complete history dissertations. Between 1994 and 2001 Family and Community History: 19th and 20th centuries, DA301 was presented. Framed by the wider OU commitment to recognizing and valuing the students’ knowledge and experience it too emphasised the need to employ the scientific methods of clearly identifying aims, hypothesizing and using theoretical models against which the findings of local research might be set. Using a problem-based learning approach, students were taught the skills required for small-scale research. On one occasion, with financial support from the Wellcome Trust, he helped over 30 students to explore the history of infant mortality in the years 1871-1910 with a focus on individuals. The studdents submitted their work for a BPhil, an MPhil or a DPhil. He sought to collapse the dichotomy of ‘inside-out and outside-in’, that is to merge the separate, parallel, streets leading either to universities from independent scholarship or vice versa. This was realised in his work for Object Number 25, FACHRS.

50 objects for 50 years. No 44. Whitehall

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Recognising that a ‘very eccentric institution is a university funded directly by the state, and run by a direct grant from the state’, as noted John Pratt of the OU in 1970, Whitehall, which was an object of significant influence, is this week’s object.

The number of UK universities more than doubled from 20 to 43 during the 1960s but, unlike other new UK universities, the OU, opened in 1969, was not part of a plan developed by the existing committee or was the result of lobbying by local authorities or interest groups. The decision to create the university was made before the main site for it, Milton Keynes, was decided and indeed before concrete started being poured to construct the new city of Milton Keynes. Rather, the British parliamentary system enabled a relatively small number of people to work through Ministerial fiat. The OU has been called the ‘pet scheme’ of the Labour Party Prime Minister and is said to be marked by his, Wilson’s ‘personal imprint’. Being directly controlled by the Minister, rather than being run through the same committee that other universities were, the OU was subject to debates in Parliament and closer investigation than other universities. The OU took the form it took because of the interventions of Labour Minister Jennie Lee. After Labour lost power in 1970 the new Conservative Minister, Margaret Thatcher, sought to amend the entry rules to encourage greater competition and the government directed the OU to support various overseas ventures as part of its diplomatic efforts. It buttressed open learning institutions in The Netherlands, Nigeria, Surinam and Thailand. It sent teams to Iran, Pakistan, it helped the Israelis to establish an Open University.

As a university created by central government and directly accountable to the Department of Education and Science the OU was subject to frequent scrutiny of its activities, budgets and teaching materials. The OU grant was reviewed annually and the OU was forbidden to carry over income from one year to another unless the expenditure was for the development of teaching materials. In addition, the OU could not accumulate reserves, nor own property against which it could borrow money. Formally, there was little scope for errors in budget management. However, costing such an innovative venture was difficult and in practice there was some flexibility. This was perhaps in recognition that the OU was not treated as other universities were. It was not within the remit of the University Grants Committee. The OU’s first VC, Walter Perry noted that, ‘our financial health has been maintained not so much because of lucky budgetary guesses in those early years but because of the extremely understanding and sympathetic way in which the Department of Education and Science (DES) has viewed our problems’. It was crucial that the fledgling university was not directly competing for funds with powerful and unsympathetic conventional universities.

As the university became more established, the demerits of this mode of funding began to outweigh the benefits. It was difficult to plan over the medium term because of the numerous challenges which required immediate resolution. Short-term resource allocation, in response to specific events or initiatives, was favoured, as, according to VC John Horlock, ‘it mattered to our masters at the DES when £500,000 was overspent one year (from a budget of well over £100 million)’. There was also concern that funding decisions were made on party- political grounds. John Horlock complained that ‘the civil servants liked to have their fingers in the OU pie, whereas I hardly saw a civil servant in all my time at Salford’ (where he had previously worked). He also noted that while the government determined student numbers, discouraged research and denied proposals for postgraduate funding, ‘ventures close to its own policies’ received support.

A Visiting Committee was appointed in order to advise the minister on the financial and other plans. Between 1982 and 1990 it was chaired by Sir Austin Bide. It was a period when the amount of government grant per undergraduate fell by over a quarter in real terms. Its eleven members visited a summer school and Walton Hall in 1982 and proposed improvements to the assessment system, which were implemented. Its recommendations led to changes in staffing, acceptance that the OU should continue to engage in research and that there should be a change in the funding arrangements. When the OU sought to expand postgraduate teaching and to fund some undergraduate-level courses in the continuing education programme through the core funding it had to make its case through the Visiting Committee. Sir Austin Bide was also a member of the Croham Report on the University Grants Committee which, as part of a wider brief, reviewed the relationship between the OU and the University Grants Committee. It received evidence from the OU’s Vice-Chancellor and others at the OU and did not recommend the integration of the OU. It did, however, propose the replacement of the University Grants Committee by a group half drawn from outside the world of education.

During the 1980s, Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Education 1981–86, adopted the view that the impact of the university-educated elite of the UK had been economically detrimental as it was wary of commercial and industrial activity. Keith Joseph’s 1985 White Paper, The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s, envisaged a smaller higher education sector. The sector, meanwhile, responded to the prevailing climate by consciously adopting industry-based models of management, which were endorsed in the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals’ 1985 Report of the Steering Committee for Efficiency Studies in Universities. The Committee, which was chaired by  industrialist Sir Alex Jarratt, emphasised an enterprise culture and specific managerial styles and structures. It also called for improvements to strategic planning and resource allocation within all universities and proposed performance reviews. This framework was already relatively familiar to the OU. It argued that it had already created structures which were in line with the recommendations of the Jarratt Report, notably a Vice-Chancellor’s Management Team and a Senate and Council connected to the Strategic Planning Resources Committee. Other universities took steps to implement its main recommendations. In the development of its management systems the OU was in some respects further down a path which all universities would have to follow.

The ease of access to OU materials and the direct line between the university and the national civil service enabled a number of Ministers to comment on OU teaching materials over the course of a decade. On being told that a social science course showed a Marxist bias in its critique of monetarism, Sur Keith Joseph read all the relevant teaching materials, visited the OU and summoned the University’s Vice Chancellor ‘to what proved’, the VC John Horlock recalled ‘to be a very difficult interview’. Anastasios Christodoulou (the University Secretary, 1968–80) said that the Minister ‘didn’t like the OU at all’ and thought that the OU ‘was politically motivated, ideologically unsound and its standards suspect and I’m almost quoting’. In 1988 the government the body which administered funding to the universities was abolished. This ‘buffer’ was replaced with that which academic Robert Anderson described as ‘more feeble barrier against direct state control’. The OU was joined by other universities in a new system. It no longer enjoyed a near-unique status within Whitehall.


50 objects for 50 years. No 43. Examination papers

Monday, February 11th, 2019

Stamps and papers: This examination paper, from a second level module ‘History of Mathematics’ was sat on 30th October 1979. For one of the Questions students were invited to look at the cuneiform numeral and were asked ‘What does this number signify?’.

The OU issued Examination and Assessment Boards with rulers and green pens so that a clear line could be drawn on the print out which delineated which students were in each category. Of greater interest to at least some Board members (mostly those with a barely suppressed desire to be that caricature of librarians or with fond memories of a John Bull printing press) was the other item in the picture. It is the stamp which was used at the meetings of the Examination Boards. ‘Considered by the Board’ meant that a script had been taken from its place in the files, assessed by one or more Board members and sometimes regraded.

Back in 1979 at many universities the external examiners would arrive each summer, look over some Finals papers and approve the assessment processes. At the OU there was a concern that the university was not seen as having the same status of other universities and that students writing their TMAs out of sight of their tutors might have received unacknowledged help. Although there were many other ways to assess, the unseen examination paper came to dominate. The shift away from the model of a course in which six assignments constituted half the overall marks and a three-hour unseen exam constituted the other half, took a long time. This model, it was argued, would counter the possibility of cheating. The OU came under criticism because, being open, it was easy to learn from it. Having listened to some OU radio broadcasts philosopher Roger Scruton claimed that one OU sociology course was ‘certainly biased’ and concluded that a student ‘who learns to write a perfect examination answer in Marxism’ would be rewarded. He also claimed that OU students’ minds ‘are neither impressionable nor truly open’. In the face of such remarks the OU employed external examiners for every module. Often these examiners would spend a whole day considering scripts and marks and the general standard of work. In 1971 the examination budget was £130,000 and this had risen to £220,000 by 1973. As it took only 10 per cent of a Foundation course cohort to be on an examination borderline for the results of 600 individuals to be reconsidered, the OU swiftly resorted to the use of computers. However, human beings remained central. Through its extensive use of external examiners and assessors the OU sought to maintain parity of standards with other institutions. Today the concerns that the OU sought to allay have spread. The ‘essays mills’ problem (buying material to pass off as your own) is rife across many institutions and there have been cases of personation in examinations. Many universities use software to check that electronically-submitted work is not copied.
Ian Price was stationed in Bagram, Afghanistan, on the day he had to take a German oral exam. The Ministry of Defence permitted him to make a call and he did his oral examination over the phone. Despite the telephone being cut off twice, he passed. Whether the exam is being sat in a quiet hall, in a prison, under fire in Afghanistan or on a Polaris submarine, what has not changed since my mother sat the examination pictured (her marginalia is preserved on the paper) is that sense of dread. Although her Headteacher wrote to say that she was likely to succeed, my mother left school a few months before she could matriculate. This was so that she could come to England, which was then at war. By the 1970s her ideas about exams must have been hazy. Many OU students would have last sat an exam at school and would not have passed. Those memories can intrude. Richard Baldwyn recalled ‘the dreaded [OU] exam’ which led him to be ‘transported back some fifty years’. Michael Hume felt that the OU helped him to overcome ‘the huge mental blocks A levels were giving me’. In its early years the OU employed Tutor-Counsellors. They were responsible for all first-year tuition (they assessed assignments) and counselling on the broader educational needs of the student. Student counsellor Peter Grigg remembered the first years of the OU and how ‘One student had to be helped to the examination hall, his state of mind being such that his grip on the stair rail had to be forced free to get him to the room.’ Student Christine Smith recalled that the evening before the exam ‘I panicked and phoned my tutor and said I couldn’t do the exam – I just couldn’t revise – I knew nothing. Very patiently she talked me through what I had to do and convinced me of how much I did know and gave me the confidence to take the exam. I passed’.
The OU wants to reward success and examiners (human being who have sat many exams themselves) consider that under examination conditions people often panic. Statistically, if you make it to the examination hall, you are very likely to pass.
All best with your assessment.



50 objects for 50 years. No 42. The Perry Building

Monday, February 4th, 2019

The Perry Building (see illustration) is on the Milton Keynes campus and is named after Walter Laing Macdonald Perry KT OBE, Baron Perry of Walton, (1921 – 2003). One of the influential Scots at the OU he was born in Dundee in 1921. He died in 2003 and was the subject of obituarties in the Independent and Guardian.

The image here includes the art work outside the building.

As its founding Vice-Chancellor Walter Perry was central to the creation and establishment of The Open University. He was appointed in May 1968, felt that the OU could ‘change the face of education not only in Britain but in the world’ and set out to transform learning and teaching. There were 42,000 applications to start studying in 1971 of whom 25,000 were accepted. Other UK universities which opened in the 1960s started with a few hundred students. He established a successful system for transfer of academic credits and he encouraged prisoners to study at the OU. Despite opposition from those who felt the OU should only teach, he noted that ‘it was the intent of the new university to promote the research activities of its academic staff, an intent from which the Open University has never wavered’. Many knew him as a skilled negotiator, despite the fact that as he noted ‘at one Senate meeting in 1971 each member received 487 pages of typescript weighing 2lbs 15 oz’. He was also flexible. When the site was a sea of mud he sent out for slippers which were issued to staff. He initially demonstrated little interest in the regions and nations, claiming that he used an amended version of the further educational administrative boundaries because ‘we had no coherent plan for the regions when we started; they were simply allowed to evolve’. Nevertheless, the model of central planning was amended to encompass the specific needs and aspirations of nations. He insisted on high academic and pedagogic standards noting that

the standard of teaching in conventional universities was pretty deplorable. It suddenly struck me that if you could use the media and devise course materials that would work for students all by themselves, then inevitably you were bound to affect – for good – the standard of teaching in conventional universities. I believed that to be so important that it overrode almost everything else.

He also recognised how difficult it was to study with the OU. His history of the OU, Walter Perry, Open University: A personal account by the first Vice-Chancellor (Milton Keynes: Open University, 1976) was one of the blocks upon which Daniel Weinbren, The Open University, A history (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) was built.




50 objects for 50 years. No 41. Trade Unions

Monday, January 28th, 2019

After negotiations reaching back to 2002 the new contract for Associate Lecturers (ALs) is going to be implemented over the next two years. This was after 93% of AL union members who voted in a union ballot, favoured the new contract. Casual labour has long been an important element of staffing at the OU. In the past it was only when students signed up for a module that the ALs to teach them are employed. If the number of students fell then, although efforts were made to avoid this, ALs might not be contracted. The new, permanent contract for over 4,000 ALs will mean more job security for tutors, as well as better terms and conditions, more staff development opportunities, and improved long term planning. The Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Mary Kellett spoke of this being ‘a huge step towards an inclusive OU family and a united teaching workforce’. UCU regional official Lydia Richards said: ‘The new contract is a huge step forward for associate lecturers at the Open University. It means they are free from the fear of being out of work if there is a fluctuation in student numbers’.

In the light of this development, this week’s object is the trade unions at the Open University. Members of a number of unions have worked at the OU. Currently two trade unions are recognised at the OU. UNISON was created in 1993 through the merger of a number of unions, including the National Union of Public Employees, founded 1905. It negotiates on behalf of Secretarial and Clerical, Industrial Production Staff and Manual and Ancillary staff at the OU. This includes members who work for private contractors on an OU location. In addition to employment Terms and Conditions UNISON offers advice and support regarding Leave Entitlement, Health and Safety, Bullying and Harassment and it also offers services such as Insurance, Holidays and Legal Advice. Based at Walton Hall, it has representatives at all the OU locations. These include Walton Hall, the Regions, the Nations and the Wellingborough Warehouse.

At Walton Hall the pensions strike picket line, Princess Leia, sporting her bagel-style haircut, helped with the leafleting. Strikers were also supported by the local prospective Labour MP, Cllr Hannah O’Neill.











The OU branch of the University and College Union negotiates with the University’s management on behalf of academic, research, AL and academic-related staff. It encourages staff to have a voice in the strategy and future of the university. Fifty years before the OU received its Royal Charter the Association of University Teachers (AUT) was formed. In 1949 the Scottish AUT (formed 1922) affiliated to the AUT (UK) as the AUT (Scotland). Almost from the start the AUT was active within the OU. It was joined by the Association of University and College Lecturers in 1992 and in 2006 it merged with the National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) to form the University and College Union (UCU). The union’s trained caseworkers have provided support and advice to members on a wide range of issues. Unreasonable treatment, such as bullying, discrimination and unfair dismissal have been challenged. There have been campaigns about the gender pay gap, job losses, casualisation, excessive workload and many other issues. The union has not simply been reactive. It has encouraged members to work together and to imagine how education could be better. There has also been support from the central officials and representatives of the union. Following votes, members have gone on strike with other branches around the country, most recently over pensions. Whilst most UCU branches have a membership based in one campus or a single town, the OU branch has Associate Lecturer and Staff Tutor members across Britain and Ireland. The UCU has often campaigned to defend students, opposing the decision to introduce high fees for learners. It has, in turn, received support from students. When tutors have explained that their reasons for postponing the assessment of students’ work, they have received letters and emails of support.
Specially-produced clothing to promote a campaign at the OU.

There have been other initiatives to engage with trade unions and industrial workers. In 1977, in an OU television programme and an internal paper Dr Ke  Jones drew on his own research in order to demonstrate that education was perceived as middle class He proposed study centres in industrial premises and the offer of guaranteed places for industrial workers. (Ken Jones, Given half a chance: A study of some factors in cultural disadvantage affecting the acquisition of learning skills in adults). The OU has also been in partnership with Unionlearn, the learning and skills organisation of the Trades Union Congress which helps trade unions provide opportunities for their members to learn.