Open to places?

You can log onto the OU in open places, but is it open to places?
You can log onto the OU in open places, but is it open to places?

In the years shortly after the Second World War and for much of the 1950s, civic universities retained their local connections and attracted students from the area in which they were built.

In the 1960s there was a move towards national universities as grants broke the connection between students and localities. Top-down universities (rather than bottom-upwards civic universities) were founded on national initiatives and there was a more general nationalisation of politics and culture as national institutions and respect for professional society and scientific knowledge came to be of greater significance. Some elements of civic culture waned, perhaps in part due to national television and civic universities took on an enhanced role in their cities and towns.

 Under successive national governments the role of local government was reduced to organising the delivery of services. The ‘hollowed out’ state was a national formation which led to universities often becoming dominant in towns and cities. In many cases they became the largest single employer and important in the local economy and housing market. Many provided or supported theatres and museums and sustained cultural activities, mediating between markets and cultures on the one hand, and local civic and environmental issues on the other.

That identification with locality became of greater salience can be seen in the selection of names following the abolition of the binary divide. Thames Polytechnic became the University of Greenwich and the former polytechnics in Oxford, Manchester and Leeds retained the local name in their titles.

While other universities stepped into the gaps left in the free market, consumer-focused cities, and became agents for local identities and values, the Open University remained relatively distinctive. Although it is one of the largest employer in Milton Keynes it is not simply in that location and it does not dominate the town in the way that (for example) the University of Central of Lancashire does Preston. The OU called itself ‘everyone’s local university’ but while it may have educated key workers such as nurses, they were not all in one location, and it could not shape specific civic values or be associated with local trades and industries in the way that, for example, Leeds and textiles were connected. Its influence was more diffuse.

The OU gained a clearer sense of locality when there was devolution of powers to parts of the UK and globalisation led to the creation of networks which by-passed metropolitan-provincial relations. Moreover, as cities become conceptualised as fragmented spaces in which the spatially contiguous may no longer be the socially or culturally contiguous and the impact of cyberspace spread, conventional universities became similar to the OU. They can all be said  to channel global influences to people’s homes and construct a knowledge-rich graduate population. If the OU is now everywhere and nowhere, it is there with other universities.

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