The OU at 50: Religious Studies

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

I had just been appointed as a part-time OU tutor (now known as an Associate Lecturer) to teach a new module, ‘Man’s Religious Quest’. My first tutorial was about to take place in Bolton in February 1978. The night before, I received a phone call from one of the students I would meet on the following evening. He could not easily get to Bolton so would I pick him up as I would be driving through Wigan? We were consequently locked together in a shared car journey during which time he grilled me, not about the arcane mysteries of the study of religions, but about whether the new module had been placed on the right level, whether its assignments were appropriate to this level, substitution regulations, and about OU life and its demands in general. The problem was that he seemed to speak fluently in a language made up almost entirely of acronyms, which he assumed I, as an OU tutor, would understand. It got little better once in the presence of my new class, all of whom seemed to have strong views about the demands of the new module, backed up, I am sure, with persuasive comparisons with other modules they had taken to date, all unfamiliar territory to me at that time. Before long, they were thoroughly immersed in what they agreed was one of the most fascinating modules they had taken. Simultaneously, I and my family became immersed in the OU and fluent in ‘OU-speak’ as that first tutorial was succeeded by many more over the following sixteen years as I taught a succession of Religious Studies modules.

What I saw of our students over the sixteen years of being a tutor more than convinced me of the worth of the OU and the value of its social mission. Apart from meeting some amazing and gifted people, in addition to taking regular tutorials, the OU gave me the opportunity to develop my skills in commenting on students’ work, supporting students with disabilities (then done through one-to-one tutorials in the student’s home) and students taking modules in prison whom I also visited. I came to realize what the potential reach of the OU could offer my own subject, Religious Studies, one that has not always attracted the attention it deserves in the school curriculum, despite the best efforts of many gifted RE teachers. Consequently, I seized the opportunity to become a full-time, OU regional academic in 1993, which took me into a new role, working with the team of Arts tutors in the region where I lived. Many, together with some of my full-time regional colleagues, became the colleagues with whom I worked most closely and over the longest period of my career. By then, the OU had won the battle to establish itself as a university in the eyes of government, other academics, employers, and the wider public. So many students wanted to register for the Arts level 1 module in the early years of the OU that many ended up in a queue for the following year. I always retained a respect for the generation of academics who had built the OU when the outcome of this new venture, and thus the effect on their careers, was far less certain. In the same year I joined the OU, Religious Studies was granted departmental status within the OU Faculty of Arts.

When I began to apply to universities for admission, like many others in the 1960s whose families had no previous experience of higher education, I knew very little about university courses and what they would involve. I simply wanted to pursue my interest in the study of religion, just like any other Humanities subject. Not knowing at that time how else to pursue the academic study of religion, I embarked on an undergraduate Theology degree in 1968. Once into my first term – yes, that quickly – it began to dawn on me how large the mismatch was between the curriculum of my chosen degree and my emerging interests. Had I but known, the first autonomous department of Religious Studies in the UK (one unconnected to an overarching department or faculty of Theology) was established at the University of Lancaster in 1967. This department, under the leadership of Professor Ninian Smart, exercised a considerable influence on the growth of interest in the study of religions in the 1970s through its involvement in projects to strengthen RE in schools and a prestigious BBC TV series on different religious traditions. My degree in Theology did enable me to take options in the history of religions, including the Hindu tradition. It thus helped me to discover that I wanted to study Hindu movements in India from the nineteenth century to the present-day, and I moved to Lancaster to continue postgraduate study there. Strongly influenced by my experience at Lancaster, I wanted to play a part in promoting the study of religions of the kind associated with Religious Studies. My professional life at the OU has been closely intertwined with the fortunes of Religious Studies.

“Man’s Religious Quest” was later renamed “The Religious Quest”.

‘Man’s Religious Quest’, the course that brought me into the OU, was very much in the Religious Studies mold with its broad historical and geographical sweep and underlying principle of not setting out to endorse a religious position. It was designed to be a module open to all, regardless of their personal convictions. In addition to its reliance on the OU’s method of delivering teaching, then through print materials, audio-visual material, and relatively frequent face-to-face tutorials, Religious Studies at the OU is set within a secular university without historic connections to a religious tradition, unlike many other UK universities that offer the study of religion. I have always been convinced that this variety in the nature and history of universities that provide opportunities to study religion must be beneficial for society and for the higher education sector.

What was then frequently (but often inaccurately) referred to a ‘comparative religion’ was not widely taught in the 1970s. The OU’s initiative in bringing such a wide-ranging study of religions to a potentially huge body of students, was regarded as so ground-breaking that a top-rated academic journal took the unprecedented step of reviewing the entire course, picking out both its strengths and not a few weaknesses. I have revisited this module partly because of its innovative nature, something that only the OU could have made accessible to so many students, and partly because this was the first module in Religious Studies (as distinct from contributions to inter-disciplinary modules) produced by the Department. From today’s perspective, this module, produced over 40 years ago, is redolent with echoes of Religious Studies as it was in the 1970s with its title’s gender-laden reference and hint that, whatever the intention of its authors, the study of religion is itself akin to a ‘quest’, a bit like a religion! But, this early module’s aim of studying religion systematically by using the methods of the Humanities and Social Sciences was one that guided the creation of the next generation of Religious Studies modules.

Since those early days, the OU RS curriculum has built on its strengths and has extended considerably the breadth of its curriculum as the size of the department has increased. An earlier focus on the history of religion in Victorian Britain has widened to embrace the study of the religious histories of many other countries. Similarly, the concentration, although not confined to the UK, on six religious tradition present in the UK that came to characterize earlier modules has been superseded by a more thematic approach that admits a far greater variety of examples from different regions and traditions. These changes reflect significant shifts in the discipline of Religious Studies, for example, away from too narrow a preoccupation with written texts to working from a much wider range of visual and other source materials in order to understand everyday practice.  Our modules Exploring religion: places, practices, texts and experiences (level 2), and Why is religion controversial? (level 3), showcase the department’s current interests. I am aware that as a scholar I too have changed through working at the OU. This is evident in the prominence I have increasingly given to visual images in my teaching materials, as in my exploration of the art of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Exploring Religion, and the important place occupied by popular iconography in my research into contemporary Hindu movements. I also developed an interest in the Sikh tradition as a result of reading teaching material written by Terry Thomas, one of the pioneer members of the OU department.

Apart from developments within my own discipline, my involvement in the OU has made me realise that different times bring different opportunities and, indeed, different problems. I knew I had been singularly fortunate in taking up a full-time post at the OU just as the Faculty of Arts decided that its ‘smaller subjects’ should increase the number of modules they were able to offer and to participate in the BA Humanities degree scheme in which students could choose to concentrate on one or two subjects. This worked well at that time for Religious Studies, attracting both students who did want to specialize in the study of religions and students from across the OU who simply wanted to take one module. This policy of expansion led to over a decade of continual, at times frantic, module production and the consequent growth in the number of students studying religions at the OU. This era contrasts with the more difficult environment of recent years in which government policy relating to higher education has had an adverse effect on part-time study. In addition, the decision not to include RE in the school EBacc has arguably marginalized the study of religion in the eyes of pupils and their parents.  But then, it was not always easy maintaining interest in Religious Studies during the early 1970s when I started out. Despite the insights that Religious Studies provides into society and communities, many of the students I encountered then through my full-time lecturing post feared that Religious Studies would not aid their employment prospects in difficult times. A decade later, global events, for example, the conflict in the Punjab, and increasing social diversity in Britain, created a new interest in the study of religions that so palpably had, and continue to have, an impact on peoples’ lives. It is heartening that the OU has already begun to recover from the trough into which it has been pushed over the last few years, and that Religious Studies also has new opportunities, including a new degree, in the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies.

It does sadden me that the expansion of online teaching appears to have been at the cost of viable face-to-face tutorials when ideally both should have their place, but our online world also contains a library that provides almost instant access to resources that do make OU study more ‘open’. What I would not have given for the internet in the early days of my research! Producing films for OU modules in India, especially when working with the BBC, gave me access to locations that I would never had had otherwise, including, memorably, access to the most sacrosanct area of an historic Hindu temple in West Bengal. Film production was a wonderfully collaborative affair and I have warm memories of the crews with whom I worked, ate, and travelled in India, on one shoot for six weeks, and am grateful to all those, not just in India, who allowed us to film and interview them. But the technology behind more recent OU visual material offers refinements I could not have dreamt of when working on earlier modules, and it will be fascinating to see where we go from here.

My OU career seems to have been carefully planned to ensure that I did not miss out on any celebratory mugs! My first came when, by coincidence, I joined the full-time staff just before the celebration of its 25th year. I collected my second when I retired just as the celebration of the OU’s 50th year began. I feel privileged to be able to continue my association with the OU as an emeritus professor but am rather holding my breath about the prospect of acquiring a third mug.

If you would like to read more about the development of the Religious Studies curriculum at the OU, you could look at:

Beckerlegge, Gwilym. (2005) ‘Studying religions at the Open University’ in Bulletin of the British Association for the Study of Religions No 106, November, pp 43-45.

Beckerlegge, Gwilym. (2011) ‘Teaching about religions of South Asian origin at the Open University’ in Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophical and Religious Studies, Vol 10, No 2, Spring, pp 61-77.

Beckerlegge, Gwilym.  (2015) ‘Introducing the Study of Religions at the Open University: The Scope and Limitations of a Distance Learning Approach to the Study of Religions’ in S. D. Brun (ed) The Changing World Religion Map (5 Volumes) Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer, Vol 5, pp 3765-3780. [Please note that this study was written at a time of rapid change in British higher education, some of which took place when the book was in production.]

Thomas, Terry. (1990) ‘Religious Studies in the Universities – The Open University’ in U.King (ed.) Turning Points in Religious Studies  Edinburgh: T&T Clark