Asa Briggs and the OU

In a few days Asa Briggs will launch his book which includes material on his relationship with the OU. This is a good moment to reflect on three contributions that he has made to the OU.

1. Planning the OU

In September 1967 Jennie Lee appointed a Planning Committee for the OU. Its remit was to work out a comprehensive plan for an Open University, as outlined in the White Paper and to prepare a draft Charter and Statutes. The Planning Committee first met on 23 October 1967. It connected people from local government and adult education with those from universities and Asa Briggs served on it. It included five vice-chancellors, the principal of a polytechnic and others. On the committee Asa Briggs focused on developing the curriculum, making the case strongly for a gateway, introductory element for courses so that access worked and the new university did not simply admit people and then fail them. He also emphasised the benefits of interdisciplinary material. He felt that it was important that students be allowed to move from one course to another and that people should take as long as they liked to get their degrees. These ideas cut across the conventions of higher education and they opened up education to people who would otherwise not have been able to read for degrees. They all became important elements of the OU’s ethos and structure. Asa Briggs also employed his historical knowledge.  Years later he reflected that ‘I always emphasised the importance of going back to the beginnings …to understand what it was that we were trying to do’. With Asa Briggs on board the planners could look backwards in order to ensure that they went forwards and could gain a coherent sense of how the new media could be deployed. The Committee chose the site at Walton Hall, drafted the University Charter and drew up the budget. On the same day that its report was published, 28 January 1969, the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Ted Short, announced in the House of Commons that the government fully accepted the plan. Asa Briggs (who was a VC at Sussex) knew when he ought to let the VC have control. In interview for the OU archive he said ‘I felt that when it came into existence it should be left to Walter [Perry, the first VC] and to the people who were involved with the university to do this themselves. I felt that there was a limit beyond which we shouldn’t go as a planning committee.’ The Committee was wound up just after the OU was granted a Charter in the summer of 1969 that is when there were others to take over.

2. Chancellor

Asa Briggs continued to be an active supporter of the OU, helping to sustain the OU as Chancellor for fifteen years, 1978-1994. The title of his 1985 Richie Calder Memorial Lecture ‘Towards the future: the role of the OU’ shows that he wanted it to be at the cutting edge. He was recognised by the naming of the Briggs building on the Walton Hall campus and the award, in 1999, of a Fellowship of the University. He is one of only seven people to achieve this honour. As his memoirs, Secret Days, Codebreaking in Bletchley Park (2011) suggest he knows how to be discreet. He didn’t tell Lady Briggs that he worked there until the 1970s. His ability to help quietly has been used to the advantage of the OU. The foundation and growth of the OU challenged the traditional institutions which dominated the higher educational landscape. One response was scepticism about the materials produced by the OU. Although there had been little scrutiny of any university teaching in the past, OU materials were easily available and in the 1980s accusations were made that OU course materials were bias. The Minister of Education, Sir Keith Joseph expressed his concerns. Fortunately, Asa Briggs’ interest in Leeds was turned to good effect when he was rung up by a Leeds MP, Keith Joseph. The Minister wanted advice about the best books on cities from the author of Victorian Cities and he knew Asa Briggs (as Asa had written a Nursing Report when Sir Keith was Secretary for Health). After considering historical matters, they discussed the issue of bias at the OU. We don’t know what swayed Sir Keith but what the VC, John Horlock, called in his memoirs ‘a major crisis’ was resolved soon afterwards and no OU courses were closed as a result.

3. Supporting learners

In 1986 he gave a remarkably prescient speech about the importance of personalised electronic communication for educational purposes. The OU he explains was born into an age of broadcasting. It should now ‘be taking the lead’ in ensuring the new technologies are employed to enable collaborative learning. He said

If The Open University is to continue to play a vital role in the teaching and reteaching of technologies it must employ themost effective technology itself. Information Technology is an aspect of its method, as well as a subject of the courses of its curriculum. The Open University was founded in an Age of Broadcasting. The great development of television was just in the background. We’re moving into an age of multiple communications devices, linking the computer and the satellite and offering the possibilities of all new kinds of electronic interchange. Just when these things will come, and how, is a matter of debate. I do believe that more personal electronic communication, more scattered and two-way communications will become increasingly important and these will affect education and The Open University should be in the lead

In addition, he contributed course materials. He recalled the collective effort involved in work within the primary teaching vehicle and one of the most distinctive features of the OU, the course team:

it was wonderful to get a group of people together, including some who were from outside the OU, on to these course teams, and I took part in quite a bit of that and sometimes I was on ones where I found myself in, to some extent in disagreement with many other members of the same course team. But the idea of pulling together a group of people was important.

Ensuring that television was used to engage people was difficult but for the Arts Foundation Course, A101 Asa Briggs presented an excellent television programme, now digitalised in the OU archive, ‘Leeds: a study in civic pride’. Using film and music it is far more than a dry lecture to camera, or a travelogue. This is history which contextualises the level at which people lived their lives within broader regional, national and international perspectives so that those new to studying and with only one opportunity to watch the programme (this is before video playback machines were commonplace) can get a sense of why history is important, relevant to them and can be created by ordinary learners everywhere. Watching Asa Brigg’s programmes you see both an expert enthusing about his subject and somebody who makes support for learning central.

In at least three ways Asa Briggs’ continuing engagement with the OU’s core activity, supporting adult learners, has helped it to thrive.

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