Explore Themes


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An analysis and celebration of our cohort's PhD journey 

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Clip: Neil Wynn's graduation
Duration: 00:01:03
Date: 1973
Professor Max Bramer: "amazingly, I've actually still got a copy of the graduation programme"
Duration: 00:02:45
Date: 2021
Professor Julia Goodfellow: "I think the OU is so part of my life, it's not just about my PhD"
Duration: 00:01:19
Date: 2021


It is hard to imagine today how vulnerable the future of The Open University was in the early 1970s. The political opposition it experienced from Conservative politicians and traditional universities meant that it had to work hard to gain its reputation as a “real” university and, according to some of the staff who worked there at the time, it felt like it was possible that without PhDs and research, the OU would not have got early recognition as a credible university and it was feasible that it may not have survived.

The success of this early research paved the way to future high-profile eminence. The OU's space project is world renowned and the, then, Brain Research Group developed into the eminent British Neuroscience Association whilst the New Towns Study Unit’s influence is still being felt in the effort to improve Milton Keynes and other towns in their sustainable environment and transport plans. The OU’s science research has also led to a collaboration with David Attenborough’s Blue Planet documentaries. Many of the graduates we were not able to locate for this study, also studied for PhDs that set the scene for the future success of the OU. For example, the largest percentage of the 55 graduates from the 1970s cohort, studied in the Faculty of Education. Some of the topics they studied are still integral to research in the faculty today, including the importance of interdisciplinary research, such as children’s literacy. Within the Humanities faculty, the 1970s cohort’s research studies of Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy were precursors to the continued study of these authors at the OU up to the present day.

Some of our interviewees speak of their graduations with great emotion and pride. Neil Wynn, the first OU PhD graduate in 1973, whose graduation you can see in this BBC video clip, remembers being almost paralysed with nerves whilst seated next to the OU’s founding politician, Baroness Jennie Lee. Max Bramer, the first internal PhD graduate in 1974, remembers  the beauty and colour of the day and speaks with reverence about the emotion of the people that were there and the way he felt in the second video clip.

Some of the interviewees on this project had such positive experiences of the OU that they spread the OU’s accessible learning techniques outside the OU to other academic institutions. Julia Goodfellow explains in her video clip opposite; "I think the OU is so part of my life, it's not just about my PhD". This remote learning expertise has been vital to higher education providers during the Covid pandemic of 2020/21.

Lastly, let us celebrate the successes that our interviewees have gone onto experience since graduating with their PhDs. They have all contributed extensively to their working communities either through high profile academic or highly successful commercial careers.

Reflections (page 2 of 7)