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The Start of the Journey

(page 3 of 3)

The historical context of The Open University PhD

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A cropped portrait of Professor Doreen Massey.
Image : Doreen Massey
Date: 1994 (approximately)
Members of the Brain Research Group from the OU student newspaper Sesame.
Image : The Brain Research Group
Date: 1975
Profile photograph of Professor Stephen Peake, Professor of Climate Change and Energy at The Open University.
Image : Professor Stephen Peake
Date: 2019

PhD Provision at The Open University 

The Open University’s first years were turbulent and exciting, but PhD study represented a tension for the OU in its early days. The OU was focused on teaching and supporting undergraduate students, many of whom had no prior academic qualifications. Its uniqueness was in its ability to teach thousands of students at once and to teach students remotely, so they could study at times that fitted around their other commitments, and that students did not need to have any academic qualifications to study.

A challenge for the university was the role of research in its development. There were significant external pressures. The 1970 Conservative government wanted low-cost higher education, and OU staff with whom we spoke, report that they were focused on teaching rather than research. Furthermore, the OU taking part in research was opposed to politically, and looked down upon by traditional universities and funding of research for the OU was not initially forthcoming from the Department of Education. In 1974, Conservative MP Rhodes Boyson typified some of the anti-OU feeling, in saying that he thought the university only wanted to provide PhD study to give itself academic gravitas and was ‘empire building’ in this respect. Organisationally, in contrast to the OU’s undergraduate programmes, PhD students required individual supervision which ran counter to the way the OU had positioned itself as a mass higher education provider, often using BBC broadcast media to teach large groups of people rather than individuals. The registration process for PhDs at the OU was very similar to most traditional universities at the time and was contrary to the OU’s undergraduate philosophy of open access education. In contradiction to the university’s undergraduate programme, there was a selection process with the outcome of a limited number of places offered, and as such, a key part of the process was passing a selection interview. According to some of the OU staff from the 1970s to whom we spoke, these differences also led some academics at the university at the time, to become ideologically opposed to the OU offering PhDs.

The University's distance learning model meant that initially it was not set up for on-campus study, which meant research would have been quite isolating, and the resultant lack of library or laboratory facilities for the very first PhD students, affected their ability to complete their research easily.

As it was newly opened and so different from existing higher education institutions, the OU did not yet have an academic reputation as a ‘proper university’ at the time. Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry, therefore, created a culture of recruiting leading professors to build the OU’s academic reputation. The opportunity to do research was important in attracting these prestigious staff members. The OU’s PhD programme attracted well-known professors in their relative fields, primarily Professor Steven Rose in biology in the 1970s. Professor Clive Emsley also joined in 1970, then as a new lecturer in history and criminology and his reputation burgeoned during his long career at the OU. This culture continued long after Walter Perry's tenure. The late, inspiring and committed supporter of the OU, Professor Doreen Massey, pictured here, was recruited in 1982 in social science and geography.  With help of these new staff, the OU ran some ground-breaking research groups. One of the first was Professor Rose’s Brain Research Group, of which the original members are pictured here from a New Scientist article, in which two of our interviewees are featured. The group went on to become very important in the development of the new field of neuroscience.

By 1990 the OU PhD programme had come into its own with £2.5m funding from grants and 21 research assistants involved in 4 high profile research projects. In his talk ‘OU at 50: Hay Festival Talk 1st June 2019’, Professor Stephen Peake describes how the OU contributed significantly from the mid-1970s to research in the fields of energy, climate and sustainability through the many technology development groups set up at the OU in the aftermath of the 1973/74 oil crisis, building on the counter-cultural movements of the late 1960s. Many of the ideas from these group members became part of the OU courses they wrote, and some wrote ground-breaking textbooks that have become the authority in their fields.

The growth of the status of OU research has been crucial to today’s academic reputation of The Open University.


The Start of the Journey (page 3 of 3)