Explore Themes


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An analysis and celebration of our cohort's PhD journey 

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Professor Bill Morris: "well, at this point I'm thinking this is Game Over"
Duration: 00:02:27
Date: 2021
Dr Joan Whitehead: "it's become increasingly recognised, and I made a small contribution to that I think"
Duration: 00:02:13
Date: 2021
Professor Jeff Haywood: "whatever it took to make the OU a success, it was all hands on deck"
Duration: 00:00:39
Date: 2021

The Experience

The first few years of The Open University’s existence in the 1970s was exciting and ground-breaking, evolving at an incredible pace with no blueprint to guide the way. However, at the time, the importance of research to the OU was undecided and it was this cohort of pioneering PhD students that led the way to the prestige that OU research enjoys today.

Looking back over that time, it is clear that providing research PhDs lent academic credibility to the fledgling OU. Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry’s recruitment of high-status academic staff, the first one being Professor Steven Rose, was a key part of achieving this. The recruitment of high-profile academics as PhD external examiners and supervisors that some of our interviewees recount, including Bill Morris in this video clip, backed up this policy. He recounts how some imposing, high profile academics were external examiners at his PhD viva and terrified him "well, at this point I'm thinking this is Game Over"!

The adventurous culture of the OU allowed the students to experience exciting, in-depth involvement in ground-breaking research in many fields. Our cohort had trailblazing experiences in a myriad of academic fields including geology, neuroscience, New Town development, computing, history, media and psychology to name but a few. The PhD graduates of the 1970s often felt like they were at the birth of a new vanguard of higher education, both in their own studies, as Joan Whitehead muses in the audio clip opposite, "it's become increasingly recognised, and I made a small contribution to that I think", but also in their involvement in supporting OU staff developing and delivering courses for a mass group of undergraduate students, which had never been done before. The interviewees themselves were shaped by these unique educational experiences that often set the tone for their future careers; for example, writing courses from scratch, teaching at summer schools and presenting on TV.

However, some things did not feel as positive for our cohort at the time. The lack of library facilities compared to traditional universities at that time, meant that PhD students reported not always getting the advice of how to study that other universities' PhD students might have got at library inductions. As Jeff Haywood describes in the second video clip opposite, although volunteering to help writing new courses was great experience for individuals, it could sometimes take priority over their own studies. "Whatever it took to make the OU a success, it was all hands on deck".

The whole concept of providing PhDs was not always allied with the ethos of some 1970s OU staff. Some staff members who contributed to this project highlighted their personal belief that the OU was about mass, remote education with no academic barriers to higher education. They felt that PhDs were the antithesis of this ethos. Some of these staff members, therefore, avoided supervising PhDs where they could. Furthermore, from a practical perspective, staff who worked at the OU in the 1970s report that, because there were no undergraduates on campus, recruiting PhD students was often much harder than it was at other universities.

Reflections (page 1 of 7)