Archive for September, 2018

50 objects for 50 years. No 23. The Award ceremony.

Monday, September 24th, 2018

Award ceremonies might go better with a bit of pomp, and a mace but the music is always Fanfare for the common man.


It was almost the case that the OU would not offer degrees or have a Royal Charter. The original model for the OU was to connect existing extra-mural departments, the WEA, broadcasters, correspondence courses and night classes and for degrees to be awarded by an established university. However, in April 1965, Jennie Lee, the Minister responsible for creating the OU, committed the government to ‘implementing the University of the Air’, which would be autonomous and independent, and would support open access and award degrees. Her February 1966 White Paper, A University of the Air, reinforced the idea. Some of the early students had prior qualifications and had earned sufficient points to be awarded a degree by 1973. The first ceremony was held where many OU television programmes had been made, Alexandra Palace. It was broadcast live via the BBC. The Vice Chancellor Walter Perry told the first graduates – there were over 900 of them: ‘We have come up with what is undoubtedly the most difficult way of obtaining a degree yet devised by the wit of man. [You] have exhibited not only the necessary intellectual capacity but also qualities of staying power and determination.’ Since then there have OU degree ceremonies around the world, in prisons and online.

Many find them marvellous experiences because they signal overcoming failure. They made it to the exam room, despite the fact that they had last sat , and failed, and exam, several decades  ago. Vida Jane Platt was told by her head teacher that she was unsuited to university went on to study with the OU:

When I heard that I’d got a First Class Degree I drove into town. The shopping centre turned into the multicoloured set of a musical. It took me all my time not to break into a song and dance act. Finally I could look everyone I met in the eye. I felt equal for the first time since that day in my headmistress’s study.

Many others refer to a sense of achievement and triumph as being collective. When you see the families jump to their feet when their mum takes to the stage, when you hear about juggling of childcare, jobs, family finances, the supportive babysitting grandparents, the partner who brought a cup of tea as the student sat late at night completing that TMA, you come to realise that learning is a collaboration.

Congratulations from the postie. Perhaps the postie also has an OU degree?







For a further selection of certificates and comments see

50 objects for 50 years. No 22. The Horlock Building

Monday, September 17th, 2018

This week’s object is a building on the Walton Hall campus named after Professor Sir John Horlock, 1928─2015.  John Horlock revolutionised transportation through his significant contribution to aerodynamics, fluid dynamics and energy and the development of gas turbines. By describing the detailed air flow in turbines and compressors in mathematical terms he paved the way for greater efficiency in jet engine design. Moreover, he was an adviser to British government and industry for decades. His contributions included being a Board member at the National Grid and, from 1979, the chair of the UK’s Aeronautical Research Council which provided advice on aeronautical research to the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Industry. He was also chair of the advisory committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations, 1984-1993. He was elected as a member of the US-based National Academy of Engineering in 1988. In addition, he was a university Vice-Chancellor for 16 years, most of those at The Open University.

John Horlock grew up in north London and had a trial with Tottenham Hotspur Juniors. He continued to support Spurs but his career took a different direction. While at St John’s College, Cambridge to read for the mechanical sciences Tripos, he became interested in gas turbines, won Rex Moir Prize (awarded to the examination candidate who demonstrated the greatest distinction in engineering) obtained a First Class degree and gained a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following graduation he worked as a design engineer for Rolls-Royce, 1949-1951. He contributed to the redesign of the compressor. Rolls-Royce funded his return to Cambridge where he taught and completed a PhD. In 1957 he won the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ James Clayton prize, awarded for an exceptional contribution to mechanical engineering and related science, technology and invention. In 1959 he was awarded the annual Thomas Hawksley Gold Medal – the Institute of Mechanical Engineers prize for the best original paper published by the Institution during the past 12 months. Only one Gold Medal is awarded each year for each award and only if a paper is deemed worthy of the award. Aged 30 he became a professor at Liverpool and then returned to Cambridge and became the first director of the Whittle Laboratory. In 1973 the Laboratory’s extension was named after him. He was vice-chancellor of Salford University, 1974-81 where his work included administering a government funding cut of 40 per cent over three years.

He was second vice-chancellor of The Open University, 1981- 1990. Horlock presided over a policy of making savings.The capital grant from the UK government was halved in real terms in 1982 and there were further cuts in subsequent years. He also had to engage with a senior politician after the Permanent Under-Secretary at Education, David Hancock, commissioned a report by economists which found two OU course units which presented an ‘essentially Marxist’ view. This was passed to the Secretary of State for Education, Sir Keith Joseph. Sir John noted that ‘the civil servants liked to have their fingers in the Open University pie, whereas I hardly saw a civil servant in all my time at Salford’. He recalled being ‘summoned to what proved to be a very difficult interview’ with Sir Keith who, in 1985, also visited the campus. Horlock concluded that although the ‘major crisis’ over bias was ‘not overtly linked’ to funding he still felt that ‘the whole affair had clearly done us no good in the eyes of the Tory government’ He added that ‘I am sure that he [Joseph] would willingly have closed the OU down if it had been politically possible to do so, particularly after the affair of academic bias’.

Nevertheless, Sir John was able to strengthen science and engineering at the university, ensure the introduction of a taught postgraduate Masters programme, and oversee the opening of the Open Business School and the expansion of the university into Western Europe. In common with his predecessor, Walter Perry, he was committed to support for academic research. While Vice Chancellor he continued to maintain his interest in turbomachinery and thermodynamic cycles and to publish papers. Known as ‘The students’ Vice-Chancellor”, the Association of Open University Graduates’ established the Sir John Horlock Award for Science in 1991. Appointed for a decade he did not seek reappointment, but retired, aged 62. By that point he felt that the university was ‘no longer a strange new immature organisation, but a massive national resource, with a high international reputation’. The Open University named a building in his honor in 1989. It is currently home to the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS).




50 objects for 50 years. No. 21. The warehouse

Sunday, September 9th, 2018






Wellingborough, the first and now the last remaining warehouse of the OU illuastrated by a man heaving parcels onto a conveyor belt almost half a cerntury ago and, more recently, a woman and a for-lift truck.

From its earliest years industrial-scale processes were central to the OU. It was built on the assumptions of mass production. In 1969, as the OU was opening, the government presided over the opening of Longbridge, the biggest car plant in Europe. Other universities of the 1960s saw themselves in the tradition of communities of investigative scholars. Sussex, for example, was called Balliol-by-the-Sea. However, the OU has been described by one of its first deans as ‘an industrial revolution in higher education’. It was built on industrial precedents, and this is reflected in the language developed by its early staff, with ‘lines of study’ and the ‘production’ of ‘units’ of teaching materials. Greville Rumble, who joined the OU in 1970 and was head of the OU’s corporate planning of ce in the mid-1970s and also in the late 1980s, suggested that ‘during the 1970s industrialisation came to be seen by many as a defining feature of distance education’. Two of the OU’s first deans stressed both the egalitarian ethos and the use of a systems approach at the OU. The concept of a ‘system’, a term which, along with the phrase ‘evidence-based policy’ was part of the lingua franca of the period, indicated the ambition to combine academic enquiry with assembly-line manufacture techniques to create educational materials for mass consumption.

In its first year the OU sent out 2.7 million mailings, including 33,000 home experiment kits. The students completed about 320,000 assignments: half of these were marked by tutors (Tutor marked assignments) while the other half were marked by computers (Computer marked assignments). The administration of just one OU Social Sciences module involved some 22,000 applicants, nearly 8,000 enrolments, 85,000 essays which required assessment by hand, 64,000 assignments marked by computers, 24 summer schools in five different locations, 300 study centres and over 1,000 part- time tutors. The logistical difficulties of supplying a wide range of learning materials to each student is illustrated by Lee Taylor, who recalled that ‘we had to scour London trying to find cardboard boxes of a suitable size for sheep’s brains. Eventually we found a place where I purchased something like 500 boxes, which said ‘Chanel No 5’ on them.’ Early accounts of the OU often noted its sheer size and scope. The first Dean of Social Sciences,Professor Michael Drake, referred to ‘the numbers that numb’.

Bletchley Post Office was overwhelmed by the correspondence so Post Office staff worked on the Walton Hall site and dispatched items directly to the railway station. In 1971 that a warehouse was acquired, at Wellingborough to deal with the need to supply thousands of students with books and equipment.

50 objects for 50 years. No 20. The National Extension College Gateway Courses

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

The National Extension College (NEC) was founded by Michael Young in 1963 as a pilot for what he had termed an ‘open university’. He intended for the NEC to be the nucleus of an open university. The NEC would have three functions:

  • Improve the quality of distance learning courses for students taking the University of London external degrees.
  • Promote a range of learning opportunities through lectures and residential courses
  • Teach through a variety of methods including broadcasting.

The NEC did indeed go on to deliver Michael Young’s vision but that is a different article.

The focus of this posting is on the preparatory courses that the NEC developed for intending OU students in the late 1960s.


The Gateway Courses

The Open University was founded on the principle of being open to everyone, irrespective of their background. In practice, however, this could be challenging for those who had little  experience or prior knowledge of academic study. This was where NEC came in. In Autumn 1968, NEC launched three pre-degree level courses, aimed at those who were planning to enrol with the OU. In the first year, 4,380 students enrolled on the Gateway courses.

The first three courses were:

Reading to Learn – ‘designed to help you develop your powers of reading selectively and critically’

Man in Society– ‘an introduction to the methods and concepts of social sciences’

Square 2– this built on O-Level Maths.

The first students

A sample survey of 70 of the initial students was carried out in 1980. They all came from a similar socio-economic background. 90% were aged between 20-40; 90% came from non-manual occupations; and 67% had been to a grammar school, and 50% had had some form of further education.

Richard Freeman, NEC’s director at the time, offered an explanation for the difference between these learners and the ‘second chance’ learners that Michael Young had hoped to reach through the NEC. Freeman argued it was not because of a difference between NEC’s other courses and the Gateway programmes but rather the publicity surrounding the Open University. It was those that had more education who had an awareness of the OU’s existence. As awareness of the OU grew, people took the courses who had no previous qualifications. Indeed, by 1980 there was less of a difference between those who enrolled on NEC’s Gateway courses and those who signed up for other NEC courses.

The feedback from these students was positive. 87% answered that the Gateway course had helped to improve their lives either socially or materially.

The 1970s

It is unsurprising that the Gateway courses were in high demand in the 1970s. They catered for a previously unserved audience. They were of huge importance to the NEC. By the 1970s, 40% of NEC’s 8,000 enrolments came from the OU preparatory courses.

Individuals within the OU were key in promoting the courses. Naomi Sargant, who had worked closely with Michael Young, before becoming the OU’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (1974-1978), was a great advocate of the courses. Indeed, she carried out a research project in 1979 looking at the impact of the Gateway courses. The research concluded that those who had studied the Gateway courses were not only more likely to complete their OU degree but they were also more likely to receive higher grades. It was thought this was because the NEC courses prepared students well both for the degree level work but also for studying at a distance. But it could also be argued that it was the most committed and engaged students who were willing to undertake a preparatory course.

The 1980s

Still, as the OU began to mature, some of its staff questioned why they were advising people to take the NEC’s Gateway courses. NEC’s director, Richard Freeman approached the OU each year to ensure the OU continued to advocate the Gateway courses. The support NEC needed were the three lines promoting the courses in the annual OU undergraduate prospectus.

In 1980, the Gateway courses were revised. The two features that remained the same were the popular course texts and the correspondence tutor. ‘Man in Society’ was replaced with ‘The Arts: A Fresh Approach.’ This course was less academic, less densely written, and had clearer objectives.

NEC’s policy towards OU preparation had changed. Courses were now shorter, they were now more accessible, and based more on student experience. The preparation was not exclusively tailored towards the OU but to a range of possible options.

NEC  went on to develop a further set of introductory courses. These were shorter; students would typically spend 20-30 hours on them, not 40-50. One of these courses still survives in the NEC archives. ‘Preparing for Social Science’ was first published in 1982. In contrast to the previous courses, the only reference to the OU is in relation to the problems of distance learning: ‘if you are going on… to an OU course then it might be a good idea to accustom yourself to working to deadlines.’

In 1984, NEC’s three lines were removed from the OU brochure. In fact, the brochure now warned of the additional expenses of preparatory correspondence courses. Without official OU endorsement  enrolments on the Gateway courses dropped significantly. This was a major crisis for NEC because it happened suddenly and without prior warning.

This, however, was not the end of the relationship between these two providers of distance education. Applications to higher education, having dropped the decade previously, were once again on the rise. The OU received 60,000 applicants per annum for 20,000 places. Ideas for a  merger were discussed in November 1988 in order to help the OU meet demand. Other ideas were proposed  such as hosting a joint facility ‘National Centre for Distance Education and Training’.

In the end, however, bureaucracy proved too great and no formal agreement was drawn up between the two organisations. It is, however, testament to the need of distance learning at all levels, that both organisations continue to exist and thrive.

This post was contributed by Anna Gibbons. Having gained a first-class degree in History, Anna will return to Cambridge for an MPHil in Modern British History in October 2018. She worked with NEC over the summer to catalogue their archives and draw up an overview of the college’s history.