Open Eye: Recalling the real founding fathers of the OU

As the Open University marks its thirtieth anniversary it is salutary to look back at its origins, and in particular at the first conception and implementation of the idea, for credit is not always given where it is most due. Much is often made of the initiatives of Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee. Both were certainly doughty advocates and supporters in the early days - but John Griffith has a personal recollection of how it all actually started .
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The Independent Online
Early in 1964 I found myself on a short list of two for the post of Director of the Consumers Association and sitting in front of the CA's founder, Michael Young (now Lord Young of Dartington), waiting to hear his decision.

The CA job went to Peter Goldman, later the embarrassed loser of Orpington to Eric Lubbock and the Liberals, but there was a consolation prize that turned out to be more than compensation.

Instead of dismissing me, Michael Young outlined his vision of an entirely new kind of teaching institution that would serve all those tens of thousands of adults seeking to improve their education. The state sector was failing them and the private sector, in the shape of commercial correspondence colleges, was often defrauding them by exploiting for profit the difficulties of home study.

This new institution was to give a second chance to anyone who wanted to take it at any level from pre O-level to university degree.

Young described his concept in such animated terms that, although I had never had any intention of being involved in education, the radical in me responded with enthusiasm and I accepted at once the job he offered me - as Executive Director of the soon-to-be-launched National Extension College, which was to be the vehicle to give substance to the dream.

The concept of using advanced correspondence methods and broadcasting to fill the educational gap had already been aired in Where, the magazine of the Advisory Centre for Education, in 1962 by Young himself and by the Advisory Centre for Education's Director, the late Brian Jackson. In September 1963 Harold Wilson endorsed the idea of a "University of the Air" as (in his "white heat of technology" mood) he chose to call it, but nothing was said about how it might be brought into being.

In October, as no action was proposed, Young announced his intention of launching a National Extension College anyway. Immersed in international affairs at the BBC, I was blissfully unaware of all this until he shared his dream with me.

The NEC began its physical existence in an old, many-storeyed, many-turreted Victorian building, facing onto Parkers Piece in Cambridge, long since demolished to make way for a council car park, itself later replaced by the new buildings of Cambridge University Press. At the time it housed a venerable commercial correspondence college, the University Correspondence College, which had fallen on hard times, largely due to its charitable status and relatively conscientious treatment of a dwindling body of students. Michael Young and Brian Jackson, my mentor at NEC, with Caspar Brook (the retiring head of the CA), as adviser, took over the UCC to form the nucleus of our new college.

Tucked away in the topmost turret of that Transylvanian labyrinth was the entire in-house academic staff: an elderly polymath who set and marked examination papers from O-levels to London External Degrees in every subject from Latin and Greek to algebra and English, and his scarcely less elderly and hardworking secretary. Between them they organised a handful of tutors and some 500 students. A number of these, mostly men but a few women too, were studying for the external degree of London University, then the only, and very lonely, way to gain a degree outside the formal university system. In a sense they were the pioneering first students of what was to become the Open University and even today there are a couple of hundred enrolled on this route with the NEC.

The Young and Jackson strategy was a clever one. Not long after my former BBC secretary and I had installed ourselves in another of the turrets, the lease expired and the old building was sold for a considerable profit. This, together with a small dividend income paid to the UCC, was used to finance the installation, in September 1964, of the NEC in much more functional prefabricated buildings on Shaftesbury Road, and to fund the initial courses.

Within weeks the NEC had sent the distance learning business, as it was later to be called, into turmoil.

Most of the correspondence colleges made their substantial profits by selling fantasies rather than genuine further education.

Attracted by relatively low fees, students enrolled in large numbers, but unsupported personally and working with often antiquated course material the great majority dropped out within two or three assignments.

But they got no refunds. The few who completed their courses probably felt that they had had value for their modest outlay, the majority only received a lesson in the harsh realities of the commercial world.

The NEC not only gave a short 100 per cent rebate cooling-off period, but proportionate refunds throughout the course.

Minimum standards of tutorial qualification and of response time to assignments were guaranteed and incorporated into a system of voluntary accreditation later adopted by the whole industry.

Telephone and seminar or summer school contact with tutors - anonymous beings in most colleges until then - was offered.

Courses were not only updated in subject matter and method, but contained such innovations as the use of tape recordings, experimental kits on science courses - and, above all, a link to television programmes created jointly with the BBC.

It was this latter element that captured the public imagination and briefly tempted us to call the new college The College of the Air.

But that was rejected as being too narrow a description of what we were trying to be - a national extension college. Within three years, with a student body of almost 7,000, that was what the NEC had undoubtedly become.

As our ultimate ambition was to create an independent distance learning institution able to award its own degrees, what we called the courses we provided for our growing number of London University external degree students was an important decision.

The Press and others, following Wilson's lead, sometimes referred to The University of the Air and for a while we were tempted into using this term.

But again, it seemed too narrow, too obsessed with the technological element that was becoming so central to the political arguments of the day.

Shortly after we moved to Shaftesbury Road our executive committee, Young, Jackson, Brook and Hilary Perraton (who had recently joined as the new director of studies), and Iwere sitting round the table going round and round the question of nomenclature to little avail.

Repeatedly the others came back to the importance of the new university not only being open to all, but being seen to be open to all until, almost in despair, I finally suggested that we should call our degree courses The Open University Courses.

Not long afterwards we received a visit from the ever-supportive Jennie Lee, Wilson repeated his public declaration of support for the concept of an Open University - and the slow process had begun that brought the OU into being.

Without the political support of Lee and Wilson no doubt we should have struggled to bring the dream to realisation, but the dream and the first practical steps towards turning it into a reality were Michael Young's and Brian Jackson's. They and not any politician, however eminent, were the true founding fathers of the OU.

The writer was the first Executive Director of the National Extension College, from 1964 to 67.