A thrill within every brown paper parcel: Susan Elkin pays grateful homage to the Open University, 25 years old and still revolutionary

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The Independent Online
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY, which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary, has been, without doubt, my most formative influence. It has changed me in a way that neither my school, my parents, the absurdly trivial teacher 'training' course I endured for three years in the Sixties, nor even my nice husband and children could ever have done.

I enrolled with the Open University in 1983 when I was 36. I'm afraid my initial reason was rather unworthy: I wanted to prove (to my employers? to my family? to myself?) that I was at least as bright as the young graduates I kept meeting, many of whom seemed woefully ignorant after their three years at university - yet had the status symbol of a degree.

The OU pioneered the 'modular' degree, a sort of pick and mix deal. I wanted to specialise in English when I started, but the system forces you to widen your horizons. Most students take one course each year and you are assigned to a specialist tutor who marks your work, gives advice on the phone and runs occasional classes for you and other people in your area who are doing the same course.

Everybody starts with a foundation course. Mine was in arts, focusing on industrialisation in Victorian Britain. Later I did two other themed arts courses based in specific periods. Thus when I read Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress and poetry by Donne and Herbert, Dryden and Marvell, it was against a background of the changing culture of 17th-century England, along with architecture, music, political history, art and so on. Eighteenth-century studies led me through Tom Jones, Pope and the writings of Hume and Adam Smith. I remember excitedly rushing to the Wallace Collection in London to study the Bouchers, and arranging my family holiday so I could get to the Louvre to work on the Chardins for an essay on 'aristocratic values' in art.

And oh, how I enjoyed it all: the thrill of 'discovering' such delights as The Marriage of Figaro and Dido and Aeneas, or finding that I could 'read' the designs of certain buildings in their historical contexts, or discourse on Frederick the Great's policies in an informed way, was a far cry from worrying about proving I was cleverer than some young graduate.

Some years I took specialist literature courses. I studied 15 books in nine months on the 19th-century novel course - if you piled them up, the stack of Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Turgenev, Balzac and so forth was two feet high. There were eight plays on the Shakespeare course - every one a gem and some of them new to me. Measure for Measure, for instance, immediately became a favourite. Six major poets constituted the Romantic poetry course.

I loved writing the essays. Each course runs from February to October and usually requires about eight 'assignments'. How satisfying to consolidate everything I'd learnt by pitting myself against a specific question. As I worked through 'Discuss the ways in which guilt functions in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge' or 'Compare Thomas Hobbes' response in Leviathan to the disorder of his time with that of two other political theorists', I felt all the exhilaration of an athlete, as I discovered mental muscles I didn't know I had. As well as giving me new knowledge, the OU showed me I could write and helped me to learn to do it better. I'd written nothing more thought-provoking than shopping lists and personal letters for years.

Even posting off your precious thoughts - each essay contains a bit of your soul and a portion of your final course percentage - is pleasurable. And as for the frisson of seizing the fat manilla envelope containing the essay, complete with the tutor's assessment, when it comes back three weeks later . . . especially if you've done well. It was enough to make me walk about singing and smiling for days. The arrival of the parcel containing each block of course material was exciting, too: lovely shiny, beautifully produced A4 booklets to work through.

I even enjoyed the exams, one at the end of each course, conventionally invigilated in a local hall. Contrary to what those who castigate the OU as an soft option might believe, I sat seven three-hour papers for my BA (Hons) course.

And what about those famous summer schools? I went twice: Warwick for the arts foundation course and York for the 19th-century novel. Summer schools are certainly not hotbeds of illicit sex, but rather a week when you can compare notes with other students. You also have plenty of time to work face-to-face with very high-calibre tutors, often on holiday from their regular jobs in other universities.

It took me six years to complete my degree and I was sad when it was over. I had worked for two hours almost every evening and an average of three to four hours every Saturday and Sunday. I read hundreds of books. And no, it need not alienate the family. I talked incessantly about what I was doing and usually swept them along with me. We visited lots of places together we wouldn't otherwise have been to: Keats House, Hogarth's House, Carlyle's House, Strawberry Hill . . . and so on.

When the Open University began back in 1969 it was much vaunted by Harold Wilson, his arts minister, Jennie Lee, et al as the 'university of the air', and yet I always found the radio and television element rather peripheral. It certainly wasn't essential to any of the courses I did and the emphasis on it can belittle the value of the work. I was once asked 'Isn't it the Open University which gives you a degree for watching television?' The truth, of course, is that an OU degree is like a degree from any other university; you get it by reading, thinking, listening, visiting places, writing, discussing and taking exams.

As a result of those six years - and the second bite I had when I returned to do an MA in literature - I think in a new way. It was like a metamorphosis; the person who emerged at the end was quite different from the one who went in at the outset. Thanks, OU, for everything. Happy birthday and many happy returns.