Purpose and Providence: The Founding of Open University

A Great British Institution

This essay is about the creation of The Open University [OU]. Bill Bryson, an American living in England, lists OU among the great, uniquely British contributions to the World, along with William Shakespeare, Christopher Wren, Chocolate Digestive biscuits and Pork Pies (Bryson, 1996). David L Kirp, a modern American commentator on Higher Education, compares the founding of OU with the opening of the land grant universities in the United States a century earlier, as “both developments provided serious and sustained learning opportunities for large number of people for whom Higher Education had never previously been available”. He also concedes, quoting Walter Perry, the first Vice Chancellor of the OU, that of the two events, OU’s story was more remarkable, as the land grant schools “took at least seventy five years to achieve a fully established place in the American society, while [OU] had to be brought into full-scale operation almost instantaneously (Perry, 1976)”. (Kirp, 2003)

The OU has indeed been a stunning success. In terms of reach, almost 2 million Britons, 3% of the population, have taken an OU course. Further, OU is regarded as one of the best universities in Britain for its research and teaching qualities. More than 30% of the people who start with an OU course end up earning a degree, an unmatched completion rate among the universities of its kind. With about 200,000 students studying for a degree at any time, OU is also one of the largest universities in the world. It has excelled in creating learning materials, and some of its productions are broadcast on prime time television and attract large viewer numbers.

The creation of OU fits comfortably in the sequence of policies that created the Welfare State in Britain. It was firmly situated in its social and political context, originating at a time when Michael Young coined the term ‘Meritocracy’ and the Ford Sewing Machinists’ called a strike (7th June 1968) demanding equal pay for women. Like the National Health Service Act (1948), OU was meant to advance social justice, breaking down the quaint privileges of university education as chronicled in novels such as Brideshead Revisited; ‘The college of the proletariat”, the Tory opponents called it at the time.

The OU is widely claimed to be a visionary project. Four remarkable men and women saw OU as a part of their legacy. Harold Wilson, the Labour leader and the British Prime Minister, who, motivated by the ideas of training by radio of Soviet Engineers and the work done by Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago, made ‘The University of The Air’ a central theme of his premeirship. He subsequently brought in Jennie Lee, a Scottish miners’ daughter and Aneurian Bevan’s widow, to the Ministry of Education to be in charge of the project: She transformed Wilson’s idea of OU from an educational trust to a credible university. Michael Young, the celebrated author of The Rise of The Meritocracy (Young, 1958) and the founder of the National Extension College, always loomed large on the project: He did not become the first Vice Chancellor of the OU only because Jennie Lee vetoed the proposal and wanted someone with more academic credibility instead. Finally, there was Margaret Thatcher, the Tory Education Minister, whose party called OU ‘a blithering nonsense’ and wanted to close it down: She saved the OU as she believed that it would train 16 to 19 year olds at a low cost (which it failed to do) and that it would create high quality education materials which could be exported (which it did).

In summary, the story of OU appears to be a stellar success of public policy, exactly the kind of deliberate intervention the governments are expected to do – visionary, timely and one that creates deep and positive social impact. It stands out as a story of social progress, where modern technology was successfully employed to move towards what would later be labeled ‘Opportunity society’. It would become a model, and an object of envy, to the rest of the world.


For all its grandiosity, the tale of OU, however, was far more serendipitous than it appears on the surface. Woodley (2007) claims that ‘neither its creation nor its continuing survival was in any way inevitable’. It did happen in the face of deep opposition from all corners of the adult education sector in Britain. Each of its sponsors, Wilson, Jennie Lee, Michael Young, Margaret Thatcher, had different ideas about what it stood for. In parallel to the great success story, the story of OU can be, with equal justification, be retold as a story of serendipitous choices made along the way.

Harold Wilson was largely credited with the idea of The University of The Air, but the enthusiasm he embraced it with was without parallel. Wilson’s inspiration came from the models of distance education he saw abroad, primarily in the USSR, where 60% of its Engineers trained through distance learning backed by radio lessons, and from Chicago, where, in 1956, Ford Foundation financed Chicago’s College of The Air, ‘which integrated TV lectures with written work, telephone tutorials and face-to-face teaching’ (Hollis, 1997). Wilson was, in fact, lecturing in the University of Chicago as a guest of Senator Benton, who he greatly admired because of his work against Senator McCarthy, and who was the owner of Encyclopedia Britannica, the company which marketed the educational films for the College of the Air, when he was informed about the death of Gaitskell and returned to England to become the leader of the Labour Party in January 1963.

Wilson outlined his idea for the first time in a speech during the pre-election programme of the Labour Party, on 8th September 1963: His University of the Air was to be ‘a set of nationally organized correspondence courses, primarily for technicians and technologists, designed for adults who had left school at 16 or 17 but who could reasonably be expected to acquire new skills and qualifications by working part-time at home’ (Perry, 1976). As Wilson (1976) will later write, it was a political act. It was ‘never party policy, nor did it feature in Labour’s election manifesto’. He would refer to the idea as his ‘private hobby-horse’, for which he would be ‘determined to use the not inconsiderable resources of his office to get it through, whatever the opposition’.

Wilson (1976) conceded that the opposition was widespread: The media was plainly hostile (with the notable exception of The Economist). The Tory party dismissed the idea as ‘a completely bogus institution’. He says, ‘opposition in the educational world, from the established universities to adult education and local authorities, was hardly less robust. Government departments, notably those of education and science and the treasury, were uniformly critical, with a marked lack of enthusiasm on part of certain senior ministers’ (Wilson, 1976).

These Senior Ministers included Anthony Crosland, who would become the Secretary of State for Education in Wilson’s cabinet and within whose remit the ‘University of the Air’ would fall. Crosland ‘was surveying the same landscape of disadvantage, immobility and denial as Harold Wilson – although without sharing Wilson’s enthusiasm for new technology’ (Hollis, 1997). Crosland wanted the leading colleges of further education to become polytechnics and to take responsibility for regional needs. The Chancellor of Exchequer, James Callaghan (a future Prime Minister) and the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, were also irreversibly opposed to the idea, because it would have cost ‘too much’.

Despite such opposition, Wilson would soon find an ally in the BBC, which rediscovered its love for educational broadcasting after the competition for a new broadcasting channel opened up. Indeed, BBC had mooted the idea of training by radio before. Woodley (2007) cites the memo of J C Stobart, educationalist and historian, dated 1926, which floated the idea of a ‘Wireless University’, i.e., of delivering education programmes through domestic radio. However, BBC eventually decided not to ‘ghetto’ educational programmes (Hollis, 1997).

When two new channels opened up in 1962, ITV demanded a channel for itself (at least more time for its existing one) and one for educational broadcasting. They wanted to strengthen its case by adding Educational Content in its programming. ITV and its various franchises were already doing different experiments in Educational Television:

Associated Television (ATV) led the way with its weekly Sunday sessions (English, French, public administration), which drew regular audiences of 750,000. Anglia was then persuaded by Peter Laslett and Michael Young to mount a ‘Dawn University’ – six lectures at 7 o’clock in the morning by three Fellows of the Royal Society and a former Nobel Prize winner. Meanwhile, Southern TV screened programmes for doctors, Westward for teachers, Border for farmers. In 1964 Southern boldly offered a prime evening slot to David Daiches of Sussex University, to lecture on English Literature. As a result, 1,100 students enrolled in some 60 classes, and a further half million visitors evasdropped. By late 1963, ITV was doing much more for adult education than the BBC”. (Hollis, 1997)

The Pilkington Committee on Public Broadcasting disagreed. It maintained a separate channel for education would be counter-productive, and it would ‘reduce the serious content of the existing television services…. for, far from being unchallengeably a proper purpose, a necessary function of all broadcasting, education would have become demonstrably the particular business of one service’ (General Post Office, 1962). Consequently, BBC got the third channel as BBC2, as Pilkington recommended, and started broadcasting in April 1964. The educational initiatives of ITV withered after the battle for the third channel was lost.

However, there was another battle looming for the fourth available channel and BBC was reluctant to let it go to ITV. A channel for educational use found favour at BBC at this stage, and was also recommended by the Tory Education Minister of the day, Sir Edward Boyle. It was eventually blocked by the Post Office, which was eying potential revenues if it was to go commercial. At this stage, the incoming Labour government’s idea of The University of the Air, which was to become an educational trust led by the BBC, which would get the fourth channel for broadcasting such programmes, was enthusiastically received by the BBC Trustees.

At the time when Wilson was exploring various ideas of technology in education around the world, Michael Young was pushing forth with his own innovations in the Adult Education sector in Britain. A lecturer in Sociology in Cambridge, he was known for his landmark essay, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), where he argued about an education system fit for the needs of an industrial society. His later essay, ‘Is your child in the unlucky generation?’, used the term ‘The Open University’ for the first time (Sargant, 1996). Young’s idea of The Open University was to prepare people for external degrees of University of London, instead of the poor tuition they were receiving from private correspondence colleges. Young’s idea of the Open University was to be built around a National Extension College (NEC), which would have three main functions, ‘to organize new and better correspondence courses for the external degree, to promote lectures and residential schools (working through the extramural departments of London and other universities) and to teach by means of television’ (Sargant, 1996).

Young’s idea, quite different in content from that of Wilson’s, came from the world of Adult Education. Young was seen as a social innovator, and using a term he coined – The Open University – was perhaps the government’s way of connecting the dots in its idea. Later, when the search for a VC commenced for the OU, Young’s friend and the Secretary of State for Education, Anthony Crosland, suggested his name: He seemed to be the natural candidate for the job when the Junior Minister in charge of OU, Jennie Lee, refused. She wanted ‘a conventional academic in the post, free of political associations, who would be accepted by his fellow VCs as one of them’ (Hollis, 1997). Jennie Lee would later write to Sunday Times ‘insisting that (Young) played no part in the early struggle to overcome the resistance of the educational system’ and that he thought the idea of the Open University was ‘too ambitious’ (Hollis, 1997).

In any case, when the Labour government was returned to power in October 1964, it inherited the proposals prepared (and turned down by the Postmaster General) for the ‘College Of The Air’ for Sir Edward Boyle. Anthony Crosland became the Secretary of State for Education in January 1965, and soon thereafter, he received a proposal from Lord Normanbrook, Chairman of the BBC, ‘offering to provide such an experimental education service, to start that October, on the understanding that the Treasury would meet the additional cost’ (Hollis, 1997). Crosland was ready to go to the parliament with the proposals by March 1965, but did not do so as Wilson appointed a new Minister of State, Jennie Lee, with the specific brief of setting up the University of The Air.

Jennie Lee, till then, was the Junior Minister of the Arts, a subject Wilson was deeply interested in, and she was given the portfolio of the University of the Air in the cabinet reshuffle in March 1965. Perry (1976) writes: “[I]t meant that the Minister of State with responsibility for all the rest of higher education would not be concerned with the University of The Air; and that no part of civil service machine concerned with higher education would be reporting to Jennie Lee”. It was a willful choice by Wilson, who knew ‘that by selecting Jennie Lee to steer it into being, he had chosen a politician of steely imperious will, coupled with both tenacity and charm, who was no respecter of protocol and who would refuse to be defeated or frustrated by the scepticism about the university, which persisted not only in the DES, but also in the universities, among MPs and among the community of adult educators’ (Tunstall, 1974).

Jennie Lee, as Asa Briggs would put it, ‘transformed everything’ (Hollis, 1997). Within a few days of taking office, she changed the idea of the University of the Air from an educational trust to a credible university. This angered the BBC, a powerful sponsor of the idea till that point. Her ideas diverged from Michael Young’s, who didn’t want to institutionalize the idea and only wanted to offer Pre-university and Further Education courses. As Hollis (1997) puts it, Jennie Lee’s OU “drew on both visions, but was to fit neither. It was not to be Wilson’s ‘university of the second chance’, whereby technicians and technologists could upgrade their qualifications in the national economic interest, though some students did; nor was it to be Young’s ‘college of the first chance’ for the educationally deprived, though for a few students it was.”

In the White Paper published in February 1966, the purpose of the new institution was defined as:

“It will contribute to the improvement of educational, cultural and professional standards generally, by making available to all who care to look and listen, scholarship of a high order. Secondly, a minority of those showing general interest will want to accept the full disciplines of study and make use of all the facilities offered.. Thirdly, it will have much to contribute to students in many other parts of the world as well as those studying in the United Kingdom.” (White Paper, 1966)

The University of The Air, by now, was to become an independent university, with its own charter, administrative centre and staff of forty to fifty high caliber professionals, and offering degree programmes as well as professional and technical courses.

The White Paper, in the opening paragraph, called it ‘The Open University’. Soon, the University of the Air would be discarded in its favour. The shape of the OU eventually will become very different from Wilson’s idea of the University of The Air. In many ways, Wilson’s ideas of University of The Air would resurface in a later project, University for Industry (UfI), an educational trust that the Government set up in 1998 to use new technology to transform learning and skills, substituting the television broadcasting with Internet. UfI has been moderately successful but failed to achieve the reach and the prestige that OU would attain.

An Error and A Death

The struggle for OU, however, was much less about the idea than about the cost. Money had to be found somewhere, even if this was Prime Minister’s favourite project. The adult education sector was universally hostile, and was under the impression that a hugely costly project would take a slice off the already inadequate adult education budget.

The battle for ideologies can be won with perseverance, but this is hardly the case when the costs become unsustainable. For example, it is worthwhile to look at the UK e-University, a proposal drawn up David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, in 2000, as a ‘single vehicle for delivery of the UK universities’ HE programmes over the Internet’. £62 million HEFCE funding was allocated to the project for the period 2001 – 2004. However, after the e-University only recruited 900 students out of the targeted 5600, the project was terminated on the 25th February 2004. Of the allocated funding, £50 million had already been spent by then. On the 16th June that year, a committee of enquiry was set up to look at what went wrong. Reports were duly produced, and three main reasons were identified: That the approach was supply-led rather than demand-driven, that the e-University failed to build partnerships with private sector which was crucial for its success and that it was a highly ambitious project. (Education and Skills Committee, 2005)

Most of these allegations could have been true for the OU: Its opponents always marveled how little research was done on whether there is a need for it. Partnerships with local education authorities and libraries were deemed to be crucial and they were excruciatingly difficult to secure, as most of the adult education world viewed OU as a competitor. Finally, even its champions never denied that the OU was breathtakingly ambitious.

However, in great contrast to the UKeU, the OU survived. It did not cost less in relative terms. While other explanations, such as fortuitous timing and leadership could explain the phenomena partially, sheer chance played its role in the survival of OU.

Consider, for example, the Goodman Review, in 1966, which was set up by Wilson in response to Treasury’s demand for firm costing for the project. Surprisingly, the University of the Air white paper in 1966 never provided any costs of the project. The Treasury was insistent that detailed costing must be provided before any firm commitment could be made. This was the context the Goodman Review was set up.

In many ways, Lord Goodman was a strange choice to head such a review. He chaired the Arts Council, in a Ministry headed by Jennie Lee. He was a solicitor to both Jennie Lee and Wilson. His independence, though not his integrity, was definitely questionable.

However, Goodman submitted his report by May 1966, remarkably quick turnaround relative to the size of the task, and confirmed that The University of the Air could be established “at a fairly modest cost, of £1.15 million capital and £3.7 million recurrent expenditure. Of this, £2.7 million would be needed by the BBC; the remaining £1 million would cover all other costs, from staff, to adapting TV sets. This would finance ten hours of TV a week, rising to thirty hours by Year three.” (Hollis, 1997)

The most remarkable thing about the Goodman Review was that Goodman underestimated the costs by some twenty-fold. He underestimated staff costs, ignored the costs of sites, central offices and local centres, made no provisions for printing and publishing equipment or any of the infrastructure that a teaching university might need. Goodman (1973) cheerfully explained later, but for this happy error, OU might not have existed.

The second piece of luck involves Margaret Thatcher, who became an early supporter of OU acting as a Shadow Education Minister. Perry (1976) reported his meeting with Mrs Thatcher as a Shadow Education Minister, where he was involved in a sharp exchange with her as she thought the OU offers courses on ‘hobbies’. Mrs Thatcher, as she herself admitted, left the meeting much better informed. She saw OU as a vehicle for two things she cared about, the training for 16 to 19 year olds at a low cost (somewhat similar to Michael Young’s vision) and production of high quality teaching materials, which could be exported abroad.

However, the Tories hated the OU, for ideological reasons (it was called ‘the college of the proletariat’) as much as for how much it eventually cost. In the OU, there was a persistent fear about the Tory ascendency, which eventually happened in 1970. Considering that Iain McLeod, the Tory who dubbed OU ‘a blithering nonsense’, was all set to become the Chancellor of Exchequer, there were real fears of survival. Perry (1976) claims that Mcleod’s dislike of the OU was personal: He was, after all, the self-appointed ‘Hammer of Harold Wilson’.

McLeod was appointed the Chancellor of Exchequer two days after the Tory victory in the General Election, on 20th June 1970. The victory came at a time not unlike today’s, when deep cuts in public spending was to be expected and the country was in the middle of a ‘stagflation’, a term Mcleod coined (combining the low economic growth, or stagnation, and high inflation). At the time of taking office, McLeod was working on an outline budget, which included many hard-line proposals, including the abolition of free school milk and the inevitable closure of the Open University. However, Mcleod was rushed to hospital on the 7th of July with appendicitis, to be discharged 11 days later. Then, barely as he resumed office, Mcleod died of a heart attack at 10:30pm on the 20th July, while still at work at 11 Downing Street.

Margaret Thatcher, who inherited Mcleod’s proposals, saved the OU (Kirp, 2003), on the consideration that it would be the ‘low cost’ option to teach the 16 to 19 year olds. She acted on abolishing the Free School Milk proposal though, earning the epithet of ‘Milk Snatcher Thatcher’ for life.

To arrive where we started

The story of OU, which could reasonably be claimed as one of the great educational innovations of our age, has many elements, of choices made, of determined action, of the thing called vision. But, such perfect histories suffer from what ‘’Nassim Taleb calls ‘the narrative fallacy’: the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” (Fergusson, 2010)

This essay, by no means exhaustive, looked at how some of the personalities and events, set in the context of a opportune social setting, brought this great institution into being. One could also detect the almost inevitable drift – from a project advancing social justice (as it was claimed to be) to the institution that came out of it mainly because it furthered economic competitiveness – that saved the OU and made it a national institution.

Further, the juxtaposition of various political ideologies – that of furthering social justice and of developing national competitiveness – that revolved around the founding of OU continue to dominate the debate about Higher Education to this day. As we learn to live in another age of austerity, the conversations about what mass higher education should mean for Britain have again started in all earnestness.


Bryson, B (1996), Notes from a Small Island, Black Swan, London, UK.

Education and Skills Committee (2005), Report of UK e-University, The Stationery Office Limited, London, UK.

Ferguson, N. (2010), Decline and Fall, in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010, Vol 89, No. 2, PP 18 – 32, New York, USA.

General Post Office (1962) Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, Cmnd 1753, HMSO, London, UK (Pilkington Report 1962)

Goodman, A. (1973) Not For the Record: Selected Speeches and Writings, Norton, New York, USA.

Hollis, P. (1997), Jennie Lee: A Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Kirp, D.L. (2003), Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Perry, W. (1976), Open University: A Personal Account by the first Vice-Chancellor, The Open University Press, Milton Keynes, UK.

Sargant, N. (1996), The Open University, in Fieldhouse, R et al (1996), A History of Modern British Adult Education, NIACE, Leicester, UK.

Tunstall, J (ed) (1974), The Open University Opens, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, UK.

Young, M. (1958), The Rise of Meritocracy, Thames and Hudson, London, UK.

Young, M. (1962), Is Your Child In The Unlucky Generation, Where, Autumn 1962.

White Paper (1966), The University of the Air, Privy Council Office, London, UK.

Wilson, H (1976) Forward, in Perry, W. (1976), The Open University, The Open University Press, Milton Keynes, UK.

Woodley, A. (2007), The Open University of the United Kingdom – a British eccentricity or a model for the world?, in Kember, D. (ed) (2007), Reconsidering Open and Distance Learning in the Developing World, Routledge, Oxon, UK.


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