Twenty-five years on, the OU still has much to rejoice about. The project was dismissed as 'blithering nonsense' in 1968 by Iain Macleod, John Major's political hero, and a Times leader questioned whether there would be a demand for its services. Harold Wilson's idea of a 'university of the air' might never have got off the ground had it not been for his personal enthusiasm.
As they commemorate their anniversary this month, the Milton Keynes academics can observe with satisfaction that, as well as representing by far the biggest university in the country, they have pioneered a teaching style which is likely to become increasingly popular.
Already the modular approach, which allows students to build up credits at their own pace, has been adopted by many universities, and advances in technology will mean far more people studying at home. Since the first OU degree courses were launched in 1971, offering distance learning backed by television and radio broadcasts, at least 2 million people have studied with it - more than 200,000 each year. Even in its first year the university had 40,000 applicants for 24,000 places, and was several times the size of most other universities. Now it is firmly lodged in the national psyche.
Perhaps its greatest value has been to people whose busy lives do not readily accommodate the routine of conventional study. Actors have worked on assignments backstage or between rehearsals; sportspeople in the changing rooms. One British serviceman sat his OU exams while on a term of duty in the Falklands during the 1982 war, and another took his on a Polaris submarine.
Actors and actresses who have studied with the university include Susan Tully from EastEnders, Connie Booth, who was in Fawlty Towers, and Kika Mirylees, whose TV productions include The Darling Buds of May.
The football manager and coach Dave Sexton began studying with the OU in 1984, and graduated with a BA in humanities in 1990. He left school at 16 and regretted not continuing his education. He had always been a prolific reader, he said, and during that period he was working with the England squad and had most mornings free for study. He took his books to 37 different countries. 'I had an interest in philosophy, and I suppose if you are a football manager it helps to be a philosopher. The course helped me to manage my time and exercise my mind.'
One of the OU's first graduates was Brian Coleman, who managed to complete his degree in two years in order to be one of about 300 at the first graduation ceremony at Alexandra Palace in 1973. Most people take six years to gain an ordinary degree, but Mr Coleman had a teaching certificate which qualified him for a number of credits. Last year, Mr Coleman, a coach with the English Basketball Association based in Leeds, returned to the OU to start work on a master's degree, making his association with the university the longest of any of its students.
The vice-chancellor, John Daniel, is also an OU veteran. A summer appointment as a tutor in 1972 had a profound effect on his career, he says. Later that year he left Britain for Canada and, after 18 years in universities which focused on distance learning, returned to Britain in 1990 to take up his current job.
He hopes the OU will continue to lead the way. By the end of the decade its courses will be available to people all over the world through satellite broadcasting. He said: 'Many of the things the OU did 25 years ago which were then radical innovations are now commonplace. That's good, because there is nothing harder to run than a monopoly.'