The Open University (or OU, as it’s affectionately known by 174 thousand students and over 2 million alumni) was ahead of it’s time when it received its Royal Charter in April 1969.
Way ahead of its time.
Originally conceived as a “University of the Air”, the OU was conceived by son of Huddersfield and then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He took Michael Young’s idea of a ‘dawn university’ on local TV and appointed Jennie Lee as Minister of the Arts to found the University.
Two decades before Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web, the OU delivered lectures to thousands of students via television programmes and cassette tapes. The OU’s open admissions policy meant that anyone could enrol, regardless of previous academic achievement or background – and they did.
OU programmes on the BBC became iconic. Students and insomniacs alike would tune into the late-night programming and learn about the periodic table, binomial theorem and the Phillips curve of employment on small-screen cathode-ray TV sets. The programmes became part of OU folklore, and have been satirised by the likes of the Two Ronnies and (Stephen) Fry and (Hugh) Laurie.
Delivery of courses moved with the times, of course. Broadcast TV requires students to work around schedules, and video recording was notoriously flaky. The 1990s brought more reliable DVDs and interactive content, and the turn of the millennium allowed for content to be delivered online.
The Open University – Life-changing opportunities
The power of education isn’t in any doubt. But far too many people fall through the cracks of the education system and fail to live up to their true potential. There are myriad reasons why people may not embark upon or complete a university education at the age of 18, and myriad reasons why they are unable to commit to full-time education as an adult.
The Open University was conceived as a way to give a higher education to those who would otherwise not be able to. The traditional barriers to university education – entrance requirements, full-time availability and the need to locate on or close to campus – simply do not apply to the OU.
This isn’t to say they the OU lacks the rigour of studying at a traditional university. Studying with the OU is hard. – trust me, I’ve been there and done it.
To achieve a qualification with the OU you must be able to demonstrate the same level of understanding as you would at other universities. The dedication and drive that you need to study after a long day at work or by foregoing a night out is immense. You need to become a master of task management as you read, plan and write assignments, hold down a job and look after your household.
An emotional roller-coaster
The Open University is an emotional roller-coaster. The excitement of receiving a bundle of books at the start of a module soon gives way to dread at the amount of reading that you must cram in. The trepidation of submitting TMAs (tutor marked assignments) on time gives way to exhaustion afterwards. Anxiety creeps in whilst you wait for your tutor to mark and return your assignments, with hopefully joy rather than a crushing disappointment when you receive the results.
Just when you think that you’ve got into the swing of it all at level 3 (the equivalent of the third year of a traditional uni degree), you realise the magnitude of every TMA. I obsessed about the grade boundaries. Thoughts like “78% in this TMA means I’m on track for a Grade 2 module pass, exam permitting, which will mean that I need a Distinction in my final module to get a First Class degree” would bounce around my mind, heightening the pressure on the emotional roller-coaster.
Unlike traditional uni students who build up deep relationships with each other, OU students are in comparative solitude. The fears, doubts and joys felt can only be shared with your loved ones, who might not be able to quite appreciate it, with far-away students on Facebook or those that you’ve met once or twice at face-to-face tutorials.
A degree of satisfaction
Graduating from the OU is a moment of great joy, as well as pride. Videos of graduation ceremonies show the release of passion as graduands who have often paused their social lives and dedicated all spare time to study for six years realise their aims.
There’s great satisfaction in an OU graduation, especially when the OU was the only viable higher education option for the new graduate. Whether the student was a late bloomer, dropout, young mother, or from a family or background which did not value or encourage education, OU students graduate not just from the Open University but also the circumstances which prevented them from pursuing higher education from the more traditional route when aged 18.
The Open University has been successful in helping make education truly meritocratic by giving everyone the means to study, rather than just those who are privileged enough to fit narrow criteria of childhood academic achievement.
An ephemeral University of the Air – what future for the OU?
Due to central funding cuts the OU has had to increase student fees to similar levels of traditional universities, and as such its founding principles have weakened somewhat. There are many more universities offering degrees than when the OU launched, and the entrance requirements for some of these are not as high as the older universities. Tuition fees which are paid only over a given salary threshold means that personal finances is no longer a barrier to education.
OU tutor contact time has decreased to help reduce costs, and hard-copies of material (such as books and DVDs) are less common as material is increasingly delivered online. It is hard to justify studying for the sake of studying when a course costs thousands of pounds, especially as ‘MOOCs’ (massive open online courses, delivered by the likes of Coursera) can provide this at a much lower cost.
The coronavirus crisis has lead to to universities looking to deliver course content remotely in a similar way to how the OU has done so for the past 50 years. Many have introduced online post-graduate courses over recent years, as they recognise that this is a better way of studying for many in-work students.
The difference between the OU and other universities is therefore shrinking, and it’s not clear whether the OU will survive in the long run. I dearly hope that it does, but regardless it has helped transform the way that higher education is delivered – and for the better. Perhaps the spirit of the University of the Air has absorbed into the higher education sector at large.