Open Eye: Keeping true to the vision of the OU

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The Independent Online
Recently I was privileged to give the Jean Posthuma memorial lecture. Jean Posthuma was a well-known figure in the OU community. I first met her when I arrived at the OU in 1990 at a post-exams partyheld in London before Christmas.

Soon after Christmas I attended a reception hosted by the Association of Open University Graduates. Jean Posthuma's organising ability shone through the two events - and many of the same people were at both.

I realised then that the categories of student and graduate are more permeable at the OU than elsewhere. Numbers of OU graduates continue as students, whether for postgraduate programmes, further undergraduate degrees, or individual courses.

These lifelong learners are an asset to the OU community. Many individuals with impressive longevity as students give time generously to OU affairs and its governance benefits greatly from their knowledge and experience.

Such people feel a deep sense of ownership of "their" University.

Whereas the alumni of traditional universities can have a rather `soft focus' image of their alma mater as they experienced it years ago, these OU alumni combine profound identification with the University's core values with an up-to-date knowledge of its current activities.

They are therefore well placed to judge whether the University has remained true to the vision of its founders. My memorial lecture was a contribution to the dialogue on this question.

What motivated those who created the Open University? Harold Wilson had two aims.

First, he wanted to increase access to universities beyond the small proportion of the population who had this opportunity in the 1960s. Second, he believed that the new technology of television was far too powerful to be left to the entertainers. It should be used to extend education and, in particular, to involve the public in the intellectual discourse of universities.

Wilson asked Jennie Lee, his Minister for the Arts, to make the OU a reality. She was determined that the new University be as good or better than the existing institutions. She therefore insisted on an independent body, with its own Royal Charter, rather than the consortium which some of her government colleagues might have favoured.

Finally, Margaret Thatcher, who secured the future of the infant OU in 1970 when some members of the new government would have abolished it, saw in its new methods a chance to reduce costs and hasten the expansion of higher education generally.

These aims were expressed eloquently in the brilliant short speech that Lord Crowther, our first Chancellor, made to the OU's inaugural ceremony in 1969. By coincidence that event took place in the week that the Apollo astronauts returned from the first landing on the moon. It was a time when everything seemed possible. Lord Crowther articulated for the University a simple but ambitious vision: to be open as to people, open as to places, open as to methods and open as to ideas.

Nearly 30 years on we can look back with pride on the OU's achievements. In striving to be open to people we have not only reached more than two million of them; we have also created a university where the profile of the student body is more similar to that of the population at large than elsewhere in higher education.

For many years the impact of the OU's open admissions policy was marred by long waiting lists but that impediment has now gone.

The insidious link between quality of education and exclusiveness of access has been broken.

In the early days of the OU, being open to places meant having to serve students from Shetland to the Scillies. Today it also includes some 30,000 students outside the UK; in the October 1998 session students wrote exams in nearly 100 countries.

By being open to methods the University has integrated various new technologies into its teaching. Our longstanding commitment to broadcasting in partnership with the BBC is now entering a new and exciting phase.

In 1999 the 50,000 OU students on-line will be among the world's largest and most interactive cyber-communities. Openness to ideas means more than merely a commitment to research.

By developing courses in teams and involving thousands of other academics across the world as tutors the OU creates an intensity of intellectual discourse rarely matched in the more individualistic approach found elsewhere in higher education.

Our new sister institution, the OU of the United States, adopted these "four opens" for its own mission and added two more. It also aims to be open as to time and open to the world.