Archive for February, 2019

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.