Open Eye: A long life of learning

Vice chancellor Sir John Daniel looks at how the OU encourages and embraces the spirit of 'lifelong education'
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The Open University will hold 25 degree ceremonies in 1998 to celebrate the achievements of over 10,000 new graduates. The events take place in fifteen UK centres and in Dublin, Paris and Singapore. It is my privilege to officiate at most of these ceremonies and it is always an inspiring experience.

Degree ceremonies go by different names in different countries. During my 21 years in Canadian universities, I was a veteran of many convocations or collations de grades, and I later received an honorary degree at a commencement ceremony in the United States. From these experiences, and after attending degree ceremonies in several other countries, I judge that the Open University does them best. The OU's secret is to reduce speechmaking to a minimum and to concentrate on greeting and congratulating the graduates personally.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to each of 400 new graduates in Wales when our Chancellor, Betty Boothroyd, presided at a ceremony in Cardiff. The OU is extraordinarily fortunate in the calibre of people who are prepared to serve as its lay officers and Madam Speaker - Madam Chancellor to us - is an exceptional example. She relates so warmly to everyone that our graduates tell her spontaneously about their OU studies, the support they received from their families, the personal obstacles they encountered, and how much the degree means to them.

Open University graduates are remarkably diverse. At the Cardiff ceremony, the youngest graduate was 22, the oldest 80. Some already had several other degrees, others had left school at 15 or earlier with no qualifications. Some had completed their OU qualification in just a few years, others had first enrolled 20 years ago and taken several long breaks from study because of family or work demands.

Most Open University students have jobs. At these events we congratulate bus drivers and bankers, police officers and prisoners, sailors and social workers, teachers and technicians. I often ask graduates whether the considerable sacrifice and effort that an OU degree requires has been worthwhile. Obviously, a degree ceremony is hardly the moment to tell the Vice-Chancellor that university study is a waste of time, but I am sure that the enthusiasm shown by the overwhelming majority of OU graduates is completely unfeigned. Some comments recur time and again. They say they enjoyed learning - some that they enjoyed every minute of it. They say it gave them new confidence and encouraged them to undertake new social and community activities. Some say their biggest mistake in life was not to have done it years earlier. A surprising number say that OU study changed their lives.

You might expect that university study would have the greatest impact on young people, whose personalities are still at a malleable stage. The average age of OU graduates is nearly 40, so they should be less open to change. Yet in a recent survey of graduates from all UK universities, it was above all the OU graduates who said that study had changed their lives.

For some OU students, the effect is immediately tangible: a promotion or a new job. But for most it is something more subtle: a more positive state of mind; a deeper feeling of satisfaction with themselves; greater confidence in their ability to undertake challenges; or the discovery of new interests and friends.

This should be very encouraging for the government, which has made the promotion of lifelong learning a central plank of policy. For most British people, there is still a long way to go before lifelong learning becomes a day-to-day reality rather than a political slogan. The title of the recent green paper, The Learning Age: A Renaissance for a New Britain, might seem unduly grandiloquent.

Yet I can only observe, from my experience of greeting OU graduates at these ceremonies, that learning is, for many, a personal renaissance. That must also be good for their families, for the communities in which they live, and for the nation as a whole.

Most OU ceremonies include the award of an honorary degree. The recipients of these titles are also wonderfully diverse. At Cardiff, we honoured Tyrone O'Sullivan, who organised the buy-out of the Tower Colliery by its workforce. His address to the assembly was a moving testimony to the power of community action and the ability of people to create their own local renaissance.