Archive for April, 2010

Happy 41st birthday

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

On 23 April 1969 the Royal Charter of The Open University was granted and the institution officially became a university. Indeed, this time a year ago the University was marking its official 40th birthday with futher celebrations throughout 2009. For more details see here.

The Charter stated that ‘the objects of the University shall be the advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge by teaching and research by a diversity of means such as broadcasting and technological devices appropriate to higher education, by correspondence, tuition, residential courses and seminars and in other relevant ways’.

Uniquely, the University was also ‘to promote the educational well-being of the community generally.’

It was this obligation to the wider community that led to the development in the 1970s of the ‘Continuing Education’ programme with courses such as P911 ‘The first years of life’ and P912 ‘the pre-school child’.

It is this same obligation within the charter that informs continued University collaboration with the BBC on current popular programmes such as Bang Goes the Theory, Child of our time and Coast. For more information see here.

Allegations of Marxist bias in the 1970s and 1980s

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Disputes about the content of a number of courses raged during the 1970s and 1980s. (more…)

Insubstantial, cosy and impractical

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

The Times Educational Supplement, 1966:

“Mr Wilson’s pipe dream of the University of the Air, now adumbrated into a White Paper as vague as it is insubstantial is just the sort of cosy scheme that shows the Socialists at their most endearing but impractical worst.”

Quoted in Walter Perry, Lifelong learning in a non-traditional setting, in A Tuijnman and T Schuller, Lifelong learning policy and research, Portland Press, London, 1999, p213.

Citizen scientists

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

The Open University encourages a 1,000 flowers to bloom

With today’s technology, harnessing observations from a mass of volunteers to contribute to a body of knowledge has become more common.

The Open University has received plaudits for its recently ugraded ispot site which encourages users to post images to help name the flower, plant, insect or animal seen and share observations with others. When put together a broader picture of the wildlife of the country will be created. Changes over time will become apparent as data accumulates. This is linked to a new introductory course, Neighbourhood Nature, which includes iSpot as a field based activity.

Another OU based project is Creative Climate, which will present and archive a body of stories of people’s experiences and experiments with environmental change over a ten year period (from 2009).

But these projects have echoes from the University’s past. Forty years ago today an OU press release announced ‘Home-degree “army” to attack air pollution’. The University was in the process of recruiting its first students for a 1971 start and proclaimed that the 8,000 students taking its first year science course would be carrying out a ‘never-done-before “blanket” analysis – from air samples taken on their doorsteps.’ It claimed ‘the mass tests are expected to provide government and local authorities with vital data needed to overcome pollution hazards as they may exist district by district… A survey of this magnitude has not been possible before because of the heavy cost and organisational problems involved in setting up such a field task force.’

The press release announced that students would be supplied with ‘home experiment kits’ to carry out the pollution probe: ‘the country-wide data will be processed by automatic document reading and computer facilities at the University and passed on to official agencies dealing with air pollution who have welcomed the plan.’

Bright red herring spotted in Commons

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Did the Tories strike a duff note when they criticised the OU?

In 1965 Christopher Chataway a Conservative MP who had worked in news and current affairs for both ITN and the BBC, quoted Education which suggested that the topic about which most nonsense was talked was educational television. He went on to call the notion of a university of the air: (more…)

Election fever

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

A 1974 edition of Open House, the Open University’s staff magazine, discussed the prospects of 12 members of OU staff standing for election at the forthcoming general election.

Two were successful. Professor Gerry Fowler became Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills and Geoff Edge became MP for Aldridge-Brownhills.

Of course these were only the first of many OU staff members to seek public office, most famously the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a former tutor.

Political bias in course materials?

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

In 1984, after being told that a social science course showed a Marxist bias and offered a critique of monetarism, the Secretary of State for Education, Keith Joseph read ‘all the relevant teaching materials’.  He then visited the Walton Hall campus in July 1985 and ‘seemed greatly impressed’ (according to his biographers, Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett, Keith Joseph: A Life, Acumen Press, 2001, p. 387. See also Sunday Times 1 July 1984; The Times 13 September 1984).

Interviewed in 1995 (for Dalgleish, Tim, (ed.) Lifting it off the page. An oral portrait of  OU people, Open University, 1995, pp. 43-44) Anastasios Christodoulou, the University Secretary, 1968-1980, recalled that Keith Joseph ‘didn’t like the OU at all ─ it was politically motivated, ideologically unsound and its standards supect ─ and I’m almost quoting.’ He also remarked that ‘Arnold Kettle, the Professor of Literature was dead keen on the nineteenth century novel.  He was a Marxist, with Marxist interpretations of the novels.’

In the 1990s the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips expressed her concerns about bias. She described Open University course books for a post-graduate teaching qualification as:

‘not so much educational texts as ideological tracts, characterised by an emphasis on teaching “correct” attitudes to race, sex and class and an overt hostility to the Tory government and the new Right… Under the guise of an educational imprint the Open University has to some extent been reduced to pumping out crude ideological propaganda, hijacking the curriculum to “correct” faulty thinking and brazenly enlisting the children in the classroom in the political struggle against the government.’

In case readers do not recognise these texts from the description (found in Melanie Phillips, All must have prizes, Little, Brown and Co,1996 pp. 42-43) the books to which she was referring are:

Pollard, Andrew and Bourne, Jill, (eds.) Teaching and Learning in the Primary School, Routledge/Open University, 1994

Brindley, Susan, (ed.) Teaching English, Routledge/Open University, 1994

Slinger, Michelle, (ed.) Teaching History, Routledge/Open University, 1994

Melanie Phillips went on (p.80) to claim that Stierer, Barry and Maybin, Janet, Language, Literacy and Learning in Educational Practice, Multilingual Matters/Open University, 1994 had a ‘hidden agenda’ was a ‘highly politicised book’ and included ‘a stream of opinionated and highly questionable assertions’.

Summer school

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

S357 Revision Weekend, York 2004



The White Paper on the University of the Air, 1966, proposed that the teaching provided via correspondence television and radio ‘will be reinforced by residential courses and tutorials’. The Report of the Planning Committee, 1969, stated: We recognise the great advantage that can accue from face-to-face meetings, which will be provided for by the short residential courses proposed’. An early Senate made attendance at residential schools compulsory and reinforced that decision in 1970 when it was questioned by the Faculty of Technology. (more…)

The history of The Open University: foundations

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010
This blog is, in part, an appeal for help. It is motivated by the research which seems to indicate that blogs can promote a sense of community and reciprocity, that if we are encouraged to reflect and share our ideas and skills then the research outcomes will be all the better. I’d like to work with those who have got memories or ideas which will improve our understanding of the development of the OU. One of the difficulties about starting any history is where to begin. While the roots of any organisation, or shift in consciousness often evolved over generations, there is often a catalyst which accounts for the formal foundation. In the case of the OU the three people who are credited with playing significant parts in the creation of the OU, Jennie Lee, Michael Young and Harold Wilson might be taken as exemplifying longer-term trends and understandings. Michael Young’s passion for using television for education and for social justice aided the foundation while from Harold Wilson there derived the enthusiasm for a technological future, for a society with modern science at its core. Jennie Lee’s input was more focused on the traditions of the Labour Party’s interest in providing equal opportunities for adults to better themselves. While Michael Young had worked for the Labour Party, it was the latter two politicians who helped to structure an idea of a ‘university of the air’ into the reality of the OU.
Does this account uncritcally reflect the ideas expressed by Walter Perry in 1976 ? He wrote:
The concept of the Open University evolved from the convergence of three major postwar trends. The first of these concerns developments in the provision for adult education, the second the growth of educational broadcasting and the third the political obhjective of promoting the spread of egalitarianism in education
This blog is one of the places where new ideas about the origins of the OU can be aired.  If the OU was an outcome of concern about adult education why was it a university rather than a more vocational college? If educational broadcasting was of such significance why have most of the teaching materials in print form and if it was a response an interest in ‘egalitarianism in education’ how come many of its users had already been socially upwardly mobile longf before they registered as students? If this framework looks unreasonable, if you have an understanding of the foundation which is at variance with the above focus, do let us know.