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The Open University at 50: still radical, still relevant

The OU's vice chancellor reflects on fifty years for the iconic institution.
This article is more than 5 years old

Mary Kellett is Vice Chancellor at the Open University.

The Open University challenged established higher education when it was founded 50 years ago on the radical principle of being “open to all”.  Harold Wilson’s bold vision, made a reality by the tenacity of Jennie Lee, created a new university to open access to education on a scale never seen before.

Many predicted we would fail – how could a university with no student campus and no entry requirements guide the educationally disenfranchised through the demands of a degree?  It was a huge gamble – but it paid off.

Constant support in a changing landscape

Since 1969, more than 2 million people have come through the OU’s virtual doors. From 24,000 students in our first intake in 1971, we now have over 174,000 people studying with us – the equivalent of two capacity filled Wembley Stadiums – making us one of the largest higher education providers in Europe and a national treasure in many people’s eyes.

As we’ve grown over the years, the higher education sector has changed dramatically, as of course has the political landscape; but throughout, the OU has always drawn cross-party support for its values and the concept of lifelong learning. Although the “University of the Air” (as it was originaly known) was pioneered by Labour’s Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher had a key part to play in the early 1970s when, in her role as an education minister, she strongly backed the newly-formed OU and ensured its continuation.

We are incredibly thankful for all the support and what it has enabled us to achieve, but we are also acutely aware of the challenges we continue to face. It is no secret that the part-time student numbers in England have been in decline over the last seven years. However, we remain the leader in the UK part-time higher education market, with a growing market share, and are the only university that can operate at scale throughout the UK, fulfilling a unique national role in lifelong learning.

The OU is a forceful driver of social mobility in the UK. Our open access policy means that no prior qualifications are needed for most OU courses. A third of our undergraduate students come with less than two A levels (where qualifications were known) and 53% of English OU students come from disadvantaged backgrounds: either living in a low participation area, with a disability or with less than the minimum entry requirements for attending a traditional university.

50 years of innovation in education

It was Harold Wilson’s vision to transform Britain through “the white heat of technological revolution” that gave birth to The Open University. We have built upon that principle of innovation by adapting and changing the way we reach people.

Almost 50 years ago Sir David Attenborough was instrumental in inspiring the decision-makers to name their new creation, The Open University. In 1965, as the controller of BBC 2, he was tasked with making Jennie Lee’s concept for The Open University a practical reality underpinning the unique access to higher education via the television.

Many people fondly remember our academics on screen delivering late-night lectures and open forums on BBC 2. These will forever have an iconic place in the OU’s history. Today our educational partnership with the BBC provides content across TV, radio and digital channels and platforms.

Each year we co-produce around 35 prime-time, award-winning, TV and radio series including, Blue Planet II, Civilisations, Dangerous Border: A Journey Across India and Pakistan, Drugsland, The Secrets of Silicon Valley, Rome Unpacked and Flatpack Empire. Our academics remain at the core of our partnership; providing expert knowledge and guidance to the production teams.

When we took in our first cohort of students we could never have predicted how different the learning experience would be today.  It’s a credit to our academics throughout the decades that the OU has remained innovative and continued to embrace the technology of the day. Fifty years ago, that meant sending course materials via post – including home experiment kits – and delivering lectures via an exciting partnership with the BBC.

Today our students study on mobiles and laptops, take part in interactive online forums and remotely control lab-grade science equipment, thanks to our multi-award winning OpenSTEM Labs. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are used to explore everything from geology of the Peak District to a beating heart. Everything we do is designed to be as flexible as possible, to fit into our students’ busy lives.

OU is a first-choice university

Students are at the heart of everything we do, and the ambition and drive they show to achieve their goals never ceases to amaze me.

When the OU started, people came to us who didn’t have the chance to access a university education; we were the “second chance” for many. But for today’s students we’re a first choice university.

The class of 2019 is made up of people who want to progress in their career, gain a qualification, who are self-motivated and determined.  They want to re-train, upskill, or redirect their lives. An increasing number of our students study at a full-time intensity. And we are also proud to have more disabled students than many institutions have entire student populations.

We are also proud to support disabled veterans through our scholarship fund. Up to one in five veterans are discharged due to disabilities. Once they leave military life, their transferable skills – developed in a unique environment that demands excellence, accomplishment and personal growth – can make a huge contribution both socially and economically.

The Open University’s Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund – the first of its kind in the UK – is enabling disabled veterans to study for free with us, receiving wraparound specialist disability support and careers advice. We are supporting students on a range of study options including introductory access module up to a complete undergraduate or postgraduate qualification.

Opening up education at scale

The Open University pioneered the open educational movement. Our huge free learning platform OpenLearn, has just celebrated 60 million visitors to its site. Free course resources, academic insights, interactives and now Badged Open Courses make this a unique higher education platform.

In 2012 we launched FutureLearn; now established as the leading social learning platform and the largest online learning platform in Europe with almost nine million people signed up worldwide. Created in response to the growing Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement, since its launch it has run more than 2,000 courses providing a valuable way of widening access to education and encouraging lifelong learning.

The ways of accessing OU courses and qualifications have evolved, too. Our validation service, partners with over 35 institutions worldwide, validating over 300 programmes. Credit transfer is smoothly done, and we are partnering with FE colleges to deliver functional level 1 skills courses in England for free.

On the international stage, the social mission of the OU is as strong as ever. Projects to develop the skills of teachers in remote corners of Africa and India have made a huge impact on the education of children in those regions.

More vital than its founders could ever have imagined

It’s true that the OU story hasn’t been without a few bumps in the road and today times are challenging across the sector.

But with challenges ahead such as artificial intelligence, future jobs that don’t yet exist, people having multiple careers in their lifetime and the current skills gap, the OU has become more relevant and important than its founders could ever have imagined.

50 years on, we’re a world away from where the OU started. But we are still the OU. Our founding principles continue to drive everything that we do – to be open to people, places, methods and ideas.

10 responses to “The Open University at 50: still radical, still relevant

  1. The OU transforms people’s lives and, in the process, it has transformed higher education, not just in the UK but worldwide.

  2. Great to be reminded of the enormous achievement that is With outreach at its heart, its expanding reach makes it a real jewel in the crown of the OU’s mission to be open to all and a fine vehicle to recruit new students into higher education who may not have realised they were even capable of lifelong learning.

  3. And let us not forget those studying for self-development. The OU is a symbol of lifelong learning, after all!

  4. Please can OU extend access to students on ancestral visas. The fees i pay for my son are 6 times higher. It is an enormous strain on our family.

  5. Great institution which I used to genuinely love. It’s a more commercial enterprise now with 60 point modular fees up near £3k, utter nonsrnse which has wiped out recreational students. Of course, this piece is a good bit of PR froth but the OU isn’t always respected at work. Gaining promotions over work colleagues with high-flying A levels caused a few raised eyebrows at work over the years. I must add the OU marketing blurb, such as, “If I can do this anyone can”, in some ways devalue the excellent quality of the courses and obscure just how difficult the damn things are!!! However, I will always wish them well but the move to tablets, non printed materials and the virtual world has revolutionised this sector. A far cry from the old days of brown card packages and tutor councillors!

  6. The OU is changing my life! I didn’t do well in school and never thought a career as a counselling psychologist was possible but because of the OU I’m now studying with that dream as a possible end goal!

  7. It’s not “commercial” – in the past the fees were heavily subsidised by the government. The current fees are reflecting actual costs, not profit-making. Though obviously the greatly increased cost to students is a great shame.

  8. It was, and continues to be, an outstanding idea which has grown and developed with its student’s and the nation’s needs. An example, I would suggest, of Britain at its best. May it long continue with its excellent work.

  9. I have every possible respect for the OU. My parents, dismayed at what was happening to London grammar schools, discouraged me from continuing my secondary education into the sixth form, so I entered the world of work not knowing what I was truly capable of. Ten years on, the OU showed me. I could not be more proud of my First in Humanities.

  10. I worked at the OU for 8 years, an experience which taught me so much transformed my life. Although I was sometimes sceptical about whether its programmes worked, I constantly met students and project partners who told me how the institution was changing their lives and opening their eyes to new knowledge and perspectives. Mary Kelly was my Dean at the OU, and I always admired how she listened to her staff and sought reasoned solutions to complex problems. Her belief in me transformed my own life and career. I believe that the OU is back on track with her at the helm.

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