Long-running cereal

Depression, claimed Victoria Wood is ‘when you eat dry Weetabix and watch Open University programmes’ (quoted in Jane Mace, ‘Television and metaphors of literacy’, Studies in the education of adults, 24, 2 October 1992, p172). While this put-down might reflect both the familiarity of the OU’s prgramming and the ways in which it may have alienated women, the issue of women’s engagement with the OU was one of concern to many.

Initially, many people feared that the OU might become, as Naomi McIntosh feared, a ‘haven for housebound Guardian housewives’ (Naomi McIntosh, ‘Women and the OU’, in Staff Development in Universities Programme, Women in Higher Education. Papers from a conference held in London on 29 June 1973, University of London Teaching Methods Unit, London, 1975). A trade journal mentioned its ‘ biased intake of teachers and housewives’. Harold Wilson, however, welcomed housewife students: ‘It doesn’t matter if their degrees never earn them a penny piece’ (Education + Training, December 1970 and Education + Training, December 1972). One female Labour MP suggesting that the number of ‘housewives [at the OU] must be encouragement for the Women’s Liberation Movement’ (Joan Lestor, ‘View’, Education + Training, 12, 9, 1970, p. 325). This accords with Betty Friedan view that ‘serious’ higher education was the ‘key to the problem that has no name’, the feminine mystique Betty Friedan, The feminine mystique, W. W. Norton, New York, 1963, pp. 362, 367). It was echoed in 1974 when Baronness Summerskill employed a religious term, stating that for ‘intellectually unfulfilled’ women the Open University is their salvation’ (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1974/may/23/the-open-university-1 HL Deb 23 May 1974 accessed 15 October 2010). Others argued that the key to women’s freedom of status, career and personal fulfilment lay in education.

In addition, although initially relatively few women were attracted to the OU and although many women students did not receive much support from their spouses or felt placed in a ghetto by distance education, they were attracted to non-degree level courses in Community Education which ran between 1977 and 1985. The style of support reflected new sensibilities about the learners. The key elements in Community Education included

questionnaires to help learners explore their feelings… activities to help learners to sort out what was important to them… feedback sections…examples to show how a variety of other people have tackled the same questions, case studies and quotes … system of voluntary local coordinators was established to put students in touch with one another.

Victoria’s one-liner can introduce us to a variety of concerns which can be illuminated through a study of the OU in the 1980s.

On this subject see

Eileen M Byrne, Women and education, Routledge, London 1978, p. 12; Marion Price and Margaret Stacey, Women, power, and politics, Taylor & Francis, London, 1981, p. 173; Margaret Grace, ‘Meanings and motivations: women’s experiences of studying at a distance’, Open Learning, 9, 1, February 1994, pp. 13-21. This is a study of distance learners in Australia; Christine von Prümmer, ‘Women-friendly perspectives in distance education’, Open Learning, 9, 1, February 1994, pp. 3-12 (p. 9). For comparable studies carried out in Australia and the USA see M. Kelly and M. Shapcott, ‘Towards understanding adult distance learners’, Open Learning, 2, 2, 1987, pp. 3-10; J. Martin, Second chance, women returning to study, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1988; M. Belenky, B. Clinchy, N Goldberger and J. Tarule, Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind, Basic Books, New York, 1986. See also Helen M. Berg and Marianne A. Ferber, ‘Men and women graduate students. Who succeeds and why? Journal of Higher Education, 54, 6, Nov/Dec 1983, pp. 629-648, (p. 644). On mature students and postgraduates see Lorraine Brown and Pamela Watson, ‘Understanding the experiences of female doctoral students’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34, 3, 2010, pp. 385-404. Gillian Pascall and Roger Cox, Women returning to higher education, 1993, The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, Buckingham; Daphne Taylorson, ‘The professional socialisation, integration and identity of women PhD candidates’ in Sandra Acker and David Warren Piper, Is higher education fair to women?, SRHE & NFER-Nelson, Guildford, 1984; Karlene Faith and R Coulter, ‘Home study: keeping women in their place?’ in David Sewart and John S. Daniel (eds.), Developing Distance Education, Council for Distance Education, Oslo, 1988; R. Edwards, Mature Women Students: Separating or Connecting Family and Education, Taylor and Francis, London, 1993.

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