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Open Eye: Missions for the new millennium

TIME TO sign off on the second millennium. The English think of 1066 as the beginning of well-documented national history. We can study nearly a thousand years of 1066 and All That and now the re-published Domesday Book allows us to make before-and-after comparisons.

For people who love universities 1088 and All That is also a great story. The oldest university in continuous existence is the University of Bologna, founded in 1088. In 1988 it celebrated its 900th anniversary in style by inviting all the world's university heads to Bologna for a week of festivities. With bells pealing from every church we processed in academic dress through the town to the Cathedral Square for a moving ceremony. The heads of the next oldest nineteen universities (Sorbonne, Oxford, Salamanca, etc) came forward, in order of date of foundation, to sign a roll of honour. Then the other universities were invited forward, continent by continent, to sign in their turn.

For anyone who has spent their life trying to uphold academic ideals and nurturing academic communities it was a memorable testimony to the longevity of both.

The earliest universities were founded by the Church, but most of the presidents, rectors and vice-chancellors who came forward from each continent represented secular institutions.

Universities have evolved steadily over the years, essentially reinventing themselves in the nineteenth century with the creation of the civic universities in the UK and the land grant universities in the USA.

The founders of those new universities stressed the practical arts by expanding the traditional range of academic subjects to include engineering, agriculture and home economics. The notion of service to the community was added to the older mission of teaching.

Later in the nineteenth century, inspired by developments in German universities, universities in the English-speaking world gradually gave more prominence to research. Thus developed the triple mission of teaching, research and service that today defines universities - and the promotion criteria of academics.

However, although the mission of universities was complete by the turn of the twentieth century, only a tiny proportion of citizens had access to these seats of higher learning.

The rapid expansion of universities to give access to a broader cross- section of the population began in the USA after the War with the GI Bill that promoted the higher education of returning veterans. Britain started rather later, in the 1960s, but made up for lost time by using three approaches.

Following the Robbins Report in 1963 a number of new universities were established. At the same time the polytechnic sector was ordered and expanded through the creation of the Council for National Academic Awards. In 1969 a Royal Charter was awarded to the brand new Open University. Throughout the world the OU was soon hailed as a radically new university because of its mission, its methods, or both.

People in the old world, accustomed to defining the quality of universities in terms of the exclusiveness of their student intake, found the OU's open entry policy disturbingly radical. Observers in the new world, already comfortable with easy access for adult students, found the OU's use of communications technologies for distance learning excitingly different.

Over the 1970s and 1980s the OU served as an inspiration for the creation of numerous open universities around the world and twelve of them now enrol more than 100,000 students each.

The OU came to be called the major academic innovation of the late twentieth century. What is new today? What will look different when the millennial celebrations of the University of Bologna occur in 2088? Following the innovations in mission and methods of the last 150 years we are now seeing innovations in the corporate status of universities. These include universities run for profit, universities that are branches of business corporations, and consortium universities. It is too early to predict how these new arrivals will affect the evolving academic enterprise.

The United States Open University, which launches its programmes in 2000, will start in this new environment - a context very different from the world of the 1970s into which the OU was born. We intend that the USOU will combine enduring academic values with the missions and methods appropriate for a new millennium.

I hope that it too will make its mark as an important innovation in the evolution of universities.