Archive for August, 2018

50 Objects for 50 years. No. 19. Slippers

Monday, August 27th, 2018

The rescue of Cinderella from poverty and abuse relies on footwear. As the tale of the use of the everyday as a vehicle for social advancement, a transformation in circumstances, can be seen as a metaphor, it is to slippers that we turn for Object No 19.

Picture of a pair of the slippers, preserved in the OU Archive

When the OU moved to Milton Keynes in October 1969, the campus site rapidly became what, as has been noted earlier, one of the earlier staff, Joan Christodoulou called ‘a sea of mud’. To protect the carpets in the new buildings, the Purchasing Officer went to Northampton and bought 100 pairs of carpet slippers for staff to use indoors. These became a symbol for the staff some of whom saw themselves as the pioneers. When the OU ran a project to collect the recollections of staff and students, the oral historian who conducted the interviews noted that the story of the slippers was one of the most frequently told tales. See Hilary Young in her article, ‘Whose story counts? Constructing an oral history of the Open University at 40’, Oral History, 39:2 (Autumn 2011). The footwear came to represent a spirit of dogged fortitude. Although he was born in 1944 Christopher Harvie, who started his OU career in 1969 as a lecturer in history, referred to the propaganda of the war when he noted that:

the campus was so covered in mud that people had to trample around in welly boots. People were issued with slippers when they went into the teaching rooms. Walter Perry greeted us like Trevor Howard in a Second World War movie. He said, ‘Some of you chaps might be wondering why you have been brought here.’

The story of the slippers appeared in an obituary of the first Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry and in the New Scientist article marking the 10th anniversary of the OU. Some staff treasured their slippers and a pair of the original carpet slippers issued to staff were donated to the Archive by Peter Price, Clerk to the Council, on his retirement in 1997.

It might attach too much weight to these items to see the slippers acting as a signal indicating the approach of the early OU to learning and teaching, that just as the sole needs to be embraced by a protective surround, so also does the soul. However, they are a reminder that the OU was opened in a hurry. It was just six years since Wilson had proposed the idea of a university of the air. A university of the air needed an earthbound embodiment but there had been little time to construct physical buildings amidst all the planning of pedagogy, the creation of organisational structures and the recruitment of staff. The slippers helped to preserve the flooring, but also indicated that this was an institution which valued the comfort of its staff. It also recognised thst it could learn from everyday experiences. Just as the OU was being beamed into living rooms via the BBC, so familiar objects from the living room were available at its headquarters. Prospective learners were offered a message that education was not provided just by aloof theoreticians in ivory towers, it was constructed by people in comfy slippers.

50 objects for 50 years. No 18. Prison

Monday, August 20th, 2018

In 2011, Universities UK, the members of which are the executive heads (that is vice-chancellors and principals, of UK university institutions) noted that, ‘a number of those involved in violent terrorism in recent years have been university graduates’. Nevertheless, universities have long been seen as institutions which enable social mobility. On the other hand,  prisons have long been seen as places which contribute to further lawbreaking being, to use a term attributed to Kropotkin, ‘universities of crime’. The Open University has sought to overcome this dichotomy and support socially beneficial learning within prisons.

In 1971, the OU’s first dedicated television programmes were broadcast and its first correspondence materials dispatched. Among the first of its part-time, adult, learners were 22 prisoners, 16 were in Wakefield and 6 in Albany prison. In 1972 an OU-Home Office scheme was initiated in four prisons. By 1985 150 prisoners in 31 establishments were registered as OU students and by 2012, there were 800 OU students in more than 150 prisons across the UK and Ireland studying over 200 courses.


In common with many other OU students, prisoners often started from a position of low self-esteem, having few or no prior formal qualifications. Writing in the 1990s Kevin Warner, the co-ordinator of prison education in Ireland, concluded a great proportion of those in prison were disorganised, unskilled, undisciplined ‘victims of severe social and psychological neglect’ with low expectations of success. OU students are often separated from one another and trhose in prison may have particular feelings of isolation. One lifer studying mathematics felt that his OU textbooks created a barrier between him and other prisoners. Many faced additional difficulties when studying as some teaching materials and experiences were denied to them. Prisoners could not attend residential schools (although excusal packs for prisoners were produced for some modules with residential schools) or group tutorials outside prisons (though tutors did visit prisoners). Chemicals and other items which were sent to students to allow them to perform experiments at home were not sent to prisons. Access to CDs, or the use of PCs was not always permitted. One prisoner who was studying an OU course in environmental studies noted that ‘prison has stupid rules: you’re not allowed a scientific calculator in the cells’. Even if materials were permitted there could be problems. A tutor pointed out that, ‘it is difficult for a Category A prisoner to set up an outdoor rain gauge and check the water level each day when he has to be handcuffed to a prison officer’. One prisoner noted that he moved between eight different prisons while he studied an openings course, a foundation in social sciences and a second level course, Welfare, crime and society. Many have argued that the Prison Officers resented the students. One offered an explanation as to the behaviour of some officers, ‘they work hard — horrible hours and they see you on a laptop getting a degree’. In the Republic of Ireland until 1985 it was only prisoners, not prison officers, who could study with the OU.


There were precedents for some educational provision. A legislative framework, established in 1815 and 1823, permitted education in British prisons. Although there was subsequent intermittent disenchantment with the notion of educating prisoners, the idea retained a foothold within the system. In 1885 the Chair of the Prisons Commission called Reading Gaol ‘a criminal university’ because of its record of support for the education of prisoners. The idea of studying while in prison was employed by the British elsewhere in the world. In 1944 people thought to be members of a paramilitary group which had attacked British offices, military installations and police stations in British Mandate Palestine. were sent to detention camps in Kenya, Eritrea, and Sudan. While there, some studied at British universities by correspondence and, following Israel’s independence in 1948, became political and governmental leaders there. Meir Shamgar and Shmuel Tamir studied law. One became President of the Israeli Suprenme Court 1983 – 1995 and  the other Minister of Justice, 1977 – 1980. In 1973, supported by the UK OU, Israel established its own Open University. Prisoners were permitted to study with this Open University and have testified to its benefits. A study of 18 high-profile Palestinian leaders imprisoned for their activities on behalf of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, concluded that education provided a route to disengagement and rehabilitation. While imprisoned for life the anti-apartheid activist Isithwalandwe Andrew Mokete Mlangeni studied with the Open University of South Africa. He said that life imprisonment, ‘gave me the opportunity to study and therefore prepared me for life outside prison and to be able to face the world with confidence’. Nelson Mandela obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree when in gaol. He studied through the University of London external degree programme. He passed the London Intermediate exams in 1963, but was prevented from completing his degree until a decade later.


The experience of being students can provide prisoners with opportunities to gain in self-confidence and self-belief. It can enable them to hold a mirror up to mainstream cultures and recognise the ways in which the social order could be made and remade. Courses, modules, required immersion in the subject matter and studying became a way to assert control and mentally escape. As a prisoner in Ireland noted, ‘You really don’t feel like you’re in prison, it’s just everything disappears in the background. [….] when I have the story sort of set up and lined up in the direction I want to go […] I’m in with my characters in the story and just the prison’s not there’. ‘Johnny’, who studied for his first degree and his PhD through the OU while in prison said:

I got hooked on education with the Open University. And I study now for knowledge, for knowledge’s sake, and I love it […] The single most important thing that education in prison has given me is a sense of self-worth.

‘Barry’, another prisoner, also emphasised the change in his confidence, the importance of his tutor and how he had come to realise that ‘you make your own light at the end of the tunnel’. A third concluded:

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the OU has saved my life. The change in me has come from a change in my mindset, not just my actions. The more I learned, the more I realised there was more to life

Prisoners’ educational attainment has been linked to a reduction in the rate of recidivism. It is likely that far fewer ex-prisoners returned to prison than might otherwise have been the case. In 2012 the Prison Service conceptualised OU study as ‘a vital part of resettlement and a route to reducing re-offending’.

‘Political’ OU students

H Blocks

In 1973 six political prisoners in Northern Ireland began their studies with the OU. Studying may have provided them with a sense of emancipation and equipped them with fresh tools with which to deal with issues of power and politics. By 1986 17 former OU students who had been released from the Maze were in full-time University education and there had been half-a-dozen OU degrees awarded. The following year a further five students graduated. Many of the OU graduates went on to hold positions of authority in a variety of community organisations. In 2012 five Sinn Féin Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, a Member of the European Parliament and others in a number of civic roles were OU graduates. David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson were both elected to Belfast City Council in 1997 and to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and were former Long Kesh Compound prisoners who had completed OU degrees. Both felt that their degrees gave them political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence. The idea that studying helped people to emerge into positions of community leadership and to promote politically stable structures was acknowledged by The Times Higher. It referred to ‘the extraordinary role of Open University degrees in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland’.

Many student prisoners and their tutors found that the nucleus for development lay in the cells, that the processes of acquiring new knowledge and learning led to personal growth and development. By learning to think differently and to reconstruct their identities they were then able to shape their wider communities.

For more about the OU and prisons see D. Weinbren, ‘Prisoner Students: Building Bridges, Breaching Walls’ in J. Burkett (ed.) Students in Twentieth-Century Britain and Ireland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. There is also a video and further information about the impact of studying on prisoners here.


50 objects for 50 years. No. 17. Jennie Lee Buildings

Monday, August 13th, 2018








There are two buildings which have been named after Jennie Lee on the Walton Hall campus. A library which she opened, now demolished and a building which is the home of the educational technologists at the OU. Jennie Lee House, Edinburgh, is where the OU in Scotland is based. Despite this recognition by the OU itself, sometimes Jennie Lee has been eclipsed. A recent article by Pete Dorey, Vol 29, no 2 2015, in the journal Contemporary British History about the foundation of the OU was entitled ‘”Well, Harold insists on having it!”The political struggle to establish the Open University, 1965-67’. The first line of the abstract reads ‘The establishment of The Open University has been widely lauded as Harold Wilson’s most successful policy achievement and his enduring legacy, a view with which Wilson himself concurred’.

One of the myths about the OU is that it has a single founding father, Harold Wilson. Promoted by Wilson himself who told a story, many times, of jotting down the idea just before settling down to that Great British institution, Sunday lunch in East 1963. The dominant narrative is of the Great Man and his swift creation, between 1963 when he penned the idea and its opening in 1969. There are precedents for such myths in many origins stories. It was clothed in classical garb by David Sewart, onetime Director of Student Services and Professor in Distance Education at the OU. He felt that the OU was ‘like Athena springing fully grown and fully armed from the head of Zeus’; it ‘appeared to have no mother and never to have had the opportunity to have been an adolescent, let alone a child’.

This categorisation of the OU as Harold Wilson’s ‘pet scheme’ (as The Times called it) marginalises the depth of its roots in the traditions of part-time education for adults, developed from the eighteenth century, correspondence courses, associated with the rapid industrialisation of the nineteenth century and on university extension initiatives, which started in the 1870s. It has also developed ideas derived from sandwich courses, summer schools, radio and television broadcasts, for which there were precedents in the twentieth century. It also marginalises the role of Jennie Lee, the OU’s ‘midwife’, to use a term employed by MSP Claire Baker. The sentence in Contemporary British History written by Pete Dorey and quoted above, goes on to say that the policy of having an Open University was ‘was mostly drafted and developed by Jennie Lee’. Dorey also adds that ‘The Open University only became established due to Lee’s dogged determination and tenacity’

In 1963, Wilson then Leader of the Labour Party, in opposition called for a university of the air. He didn’t fill in the details and, after the General Election of 1964, he was busy being Prime Minister. He handed the brief to a Labour MP who had over 20 years of experience of the Commons: Jennie Lee.

On the campaign trail in Bristol in 1943, where Jennie Lee was defeated, and Cannock which she represented 1945-70.

She became Britain’s first Arts Minister in the Labour government of 1964. She was 60, widowed for four years and fearless. She seized responsibility of making an idea of ‘a university of the air’ into a reality. Keeping well clear of the civil servants who dealt with other universities, it was she who decided on the form the new institution would take. In the face of opposition she developed a tiny sketch into a complete university. As she said to her senior civil servant, Ralph Toomey, in 1967, before the OU had opened, when its future was uncertain: ‘that little bastard that I have hugged to my bosom and cherished, that all the others have tried to kill off,will thrive’. She was able to do this because she had a clear idea of what she wanted – a ‘great independent university’ based on something like the Scottish system of higher education. A coalminer’s daughter who had received a bursary to study at Edinburgh University during the 1926 strike which impoverished her community she determined to beat the established order at its own game, to ‘outsnob the snobs’, as she put it. Her late spouse, Aneurin Bevan, had become a miner on leaving elementary school and had received little formal education, though he noted in 1952 how he valued ‘superior educational opportunities’. She mentioned him when she spoke of the origins of the Open University, recalling how they both knew ‘that there were people in the mining villages who left school at 14 or 15 who had first-class intellects’. This may have led her to create an advisory committee which did not include representatives from the principal university providers of adult education. In addition, she maintained control. She not only created but chaired the committee.

There were plenty of sceptics. Many Conservatives largely hated it. The BBC had long produced educational materials and was unimpressed by this upstart. Whitehall was also snooty and the press largely agreed. Within the Higher Education sector several critics argued that the money should be spent elsewhere. Jennie Lee produced a White Paper before the 1966 general election. Wilson recalled her contribution when the Cabinet met at Chequers 50 years ago just prior to March 1966 election. He said:

At the end of the afternoon anybody was free to speak on anything. Jennie got up and made a passionate speech about the University of the Air. She said the greatest creation of the previous Labour government was Nye’s National Health Service but that now we were engaged on an operation which would make just as much difference to the country. We were all impressed. She was a tigress.

Her Feb 1966 White Paper, ‘A University of the Air’ made it clear that “There can be no question of offering to students a makeshift project inferior in quality to other universities. That would defeat its whole purpose”. She got it into the manifesto, Labour won the election in March and, returned to office, she steered the proposed OU past the sterling crisis, past tax increases, past credit restraints & the prices and incomes standstill and towards her friend, Lord Goodman. He produced a set of figures for the cost of the OU which were a massive underestimate. The OU’s first Vice Chancellor called it ‘perhaps a fortunate accident’. Perhaps. Or perhaps it was an astute political move.

What today would derail a Minister – rudeness to colleagues, indifference to her Secretary of State, visible contempt for the department in which she was located – were her strengths. She didn’t care if civil servants, or colleagues, were offended, or wouldn’t work with her or didn’t trust her. She wasn’t building a career. She wanted an Open University. It was Jennie who decided that the OU would offer degrees, would be open to all, even the unqualified and would operate independently, separately, and with the highest academic standards. Adult education should be more than what she called ‘dowdy and mouldy… old-fashioned night schools … hard benches’. She knew that Adult Education was, as the OU’s first Vice-Chancellor, another Scot called Walter Perry, put it, ‘the patch on the backside of our educational trousers’. In 1965 she told the Commons: ’I am not interested in having a poor man’s university of the air, which is the sort of thing which one gets if nothing else is within our reach. We should set our sights higher than that.’

In Walton Hall there is a painting of Jennie Lee. She is portrayed as being in many places at once, including in the Commons, at the hustings and attending a degree ceremony. This is how it should be for, as the Founding Chancellor said when opening the OU, ‘This University has no cloisters – a word meaning closed. Hardly even shall we have a campus… the University will be disembodied’. The OU is everywhere around us and, being without its own body, it needs our bodies.

Not merely to conceive, but actually to make happen a university which sought to match the standards of the best in the sector but had no admission requirements, which attempted to employ print, correspondence and television in a way which transcended the potential of each, which made a reality of reaching every kind of learner in every corner of the United Kingdom, required a vast act of faith and a bloody-minded determination.

50 objects for 50 years. No 16. Blue Planet II

Monday, August 6th, 2018

After people saw the Blue Planet II footage of albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic and mother dolphins potentially exposing their new-born calves to pollutants through their contaminated milk, the campaign against the excessive use of plastic gained a lot more adherents. David Attenborough expressed that he was ‘absolutely astonished at the result that that programme has had’ and noted the impact on politicians and businesses and the reduction in people’s single-use plastic footprints. There are campaign and activities ideas.

The influential series is linked to the OU, particularly Dr Mark Brandon and Dr Philip Sexton. Listen to Janet Sumner interviewing OU consultants to the Blue Planet II TV series. There is more here  and here and you can get an OU ‘Oceans’ poster.

This is part of an OU tradition of producing widespread, lifelong learning beyond the syllabus. Its early modules, courses included material broadcast on BBC television and radio. There was initial scepticism from some academics and Conservative politicians. However, the OU was committed to using television and sought to employ innovative approaches. The programmes had to address both registered students and the wider public. The result was varied informative programmes which positioned viewers as interactive learners and presented learning as a problematising and experiential activity. As the first Dean of Arts, John Ferguson, complained, ‘It is a common delusion about the Open University that we “give lectures on TV.” We do not “give lectures” at all.’ The OU had its own purpose-built television studio complex at Walton Hall, which enabled it to produce, for example, a video which generated three-dimensional images of the brain for the Biology: brain and behaviour course. For Haemoglobin, Programme 1 of Biochemistry and molecular biology, S322 (1977–85), Max Perutz used a static model, moving graphs, equations, diagrams, a clip of an experiment and a view down a microscope as well as lecturing to camera. Robert Bell, an OU lecturer, recalled ‘seeing an early Maths programme shot on a rubbish dump, and certainly many of them involved ingenious working models that would have been unavailable then in a conventional university’. The materials for Drama, A307 (1977–81), included the transmission of sixteen fifty-minute plays. Samuel Beckett’s Endgame was given its television premiere on an OU transmission of 90 minutes in duration. Students were told ‘Do not regard each programme as definitive … you should bring your free and concentrated response and your informed critical judgment’.

Charlie Drake in a dustbin in the BBC and OU version of Endgame.

To develop students’ critical awareness of how each performance of a play was an interpretation of the text there was multi-camera work in the studio and televised scenes from Aristophanes’ Clouds, in which Socrates appears as a character. In the broadcast’s introduction John Ferguson is shown with cameras around him and there is a moment when both a Greek character – Strepsiades, played by Juan Moreno – and the Dean are in shot. Similarly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not presented as an uninterrupted performance. Instead academics discussed different ways of interpreting individual scenes. These interpretations were illustrated through performances by actors. How was all this received? Audrey Moore, who started her studies in 1974, recalled that the television programmes were often on early in the morning and she was ‘frequently rather tired going to work’, but one programme, on the Cuban revolution,’ inspired me to want to sing and dance all the way to work’. After nearly ten years as Vice-Chancellor John Horlock was able to claim that millions had, through the OU broadcasts, ‘obtained further education “by osmosis”’. Blue Planet II is a stunning achievement, and one built on years of experience and co-operation between the broadcasters and the educators.