50 objects for 50 years. No 35. Dum-dah, dum-dah, dum, dum, dum, daaaaaah


This fanfare, the sting, the first few bars of Divertimento for three trumpets and three trombones, opus 49, was composed in 1959 by Leonard Salzedo and, from 1971, was used by the Open University as the signature to radio and television programmes. In this respect it is framed by the 60s as also are the origins of the OU. The music was also associated with the logo. The OU was announced by Harold Wilson in April 1963, developed by Jennie Lee and granted its Royal Charter in April 1969. Those few bars was the sound of my youth in the 1970s. They were a signal that my Mum was switching identities, was ceasing to prioritise being maternal and was instead to be an OU student. However, the Open University did more than disrupt my life. It enabled ‘university learning’ to enter millions of people’s homes and to transform their lives. It also disrupted the higher education sector and indeed the very idea of the university.

Those five bars can each work as a reminder of the OU to listeners and viewers. As you sat on the sofa in front of the television you were being told that the next programme was evidence of a society which wanted to improve itself, which was run by a supportive government, that was using the most up-tp-date technology and systems for social benefits and that higher education was not confined to either young radicals or the campus.

This was an affluent society. Wealthy enough to own televisions, mass literacy, mass access to broadcasts and, from 1964, BBC2. Television, it was argued could be transformative, acting as the window on the world.

This was a government, the BBC was state-run, which promoted social justice. Labour’s Nye Bevan, had opened the NHS in 1948, now his widow, Jennie Lee was expanding provision. The OU demonstrated the worthiness of the state vs commercial broadcasting pirates. Within a few months of a newspaper interview with Edward Short, the Postmaster-General, which was headlined ‘Why I’m sinking the pirates’, he became Secretary of State for Education. Questions of “education” and of “pop music” should not be treated, as separate historical topics. Nor at the time were they kept in entirely separate files. The agenda and the chronologies of education and pop music criss-cross. Educational television was, it was claimed ‘a symbol of a new type of government’.

Reaching a mass audience was a symbol of mass production business model and a systems approach. Encouraged by the Wilson government, a new car company the British Leyland Motor Corporation was formed in 1968. Within a year it employed 250,000 people at the largest car plant in the world. Most UK universities which opened in the 1960s initially catered for a few hundred students. By contrast, when the first round of applications to the OU closed, over 42,000 people had applied. There were only 621,000 students in higher education.

There was cross-party support that state should build more universities. The Robbins report of 1963 was approved by all sides. However, by the time OU opened, students were perceived as a pampered lot, wasting time and taxpayers money. ‘Youth’, lamented lecturer E.P. Thompson in regard to Warwick University where he taught, ‘if left to its own devices, tends to become very hairy, to lie in bed til lunch-time, to miss seminars’. That most of the members of the Angry Brigade, who faced trial for a bombing campaign in Britain between 1970 and 1972 had been students was not lost on the press: ‘Dropouts with brains tried to launch bloody revolution’ claimed one headline. By contrast another paper claimed OU students were ‘Short-haired students keen to work’. Those five bars told viewers and listeners that technology could be used to support learners. University studying could occur in locations which had not previously been used for such purposes. At its foundation in 1969 the first Chancellor called the OU ‘disembodied’. Students in front of the television set could rearrange the conventions of time and space. They could create a laboratory or seminar room. One space could become several. Students could hold a mirror up to the mainstream, could recognise normality by observing what it could be, what it has been and what it is not. Through broadcasting spaces in which the social order could be made and remade were created.





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