Open University - 'the embodiment of innovation'

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So said Prime Minister Harold Wilson an unbelievable 40 years ago on the launch of the OU. He was contradicted very peremptorily by the then Conservative Chancellor, Iain Macleod, who labelled the enterprise 'blithering nonsense'. Divided opinions quickly disappeared, however, and the Open University went on to boldly transform the lives of millions of people in the UK.

It began its life as the vision of Harold Wilson, who - when giving a lecture at Chicago University - was so impressed with its innovative use of closed circuit TV and radio that he pushed for the launch of a 'university of the air' proposition. This happened at the Labour Party Conference of 1963, when Wilson detailed how broadcast media would be used to create genuinely accessible degree level courses.

And the first programme broadcast on 3 January 1971? It was a rather dry (to contemporary eyes) introduction to a Maths Foundation Course. And by pure chance, one of the very first TV maths lecturers was a certain Robin Wilson, son of the Prime Minister himself. Early BBC producers are on record as saying 'what fun', 'how chaotic', 'how engrossing' was the process of collaborating with academics: a mutual learning process on both sides of working out how to put across very complex content, how to work with non-broadcast presenters, and how best to sustain the long-term interest of students. Especially when those students were watching or listening at the very corners of the broadcast schedule - at the crack of dawn or late at night.

Of course we loved to laugh at it. The kipper ties, funky beards and long hair of its presenters; the complicated props, diagrams and models on set. Ronnie Barker, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie all had a huge guffaw at its expense, but in a way, they also asserted its very impact. It had become a very recognisable part of the British broadcast landscape.

And its impact on generations of 'Ritas' was undeniable. Just look at the stats. In its first year alone, it enrolled 25,000 students, compared to the intake of 130,000 across the whole traditional university sector. It was a revolution (and not just intellectually), and countless men and women said so…'Once you start working independently, intellectually, you also start to revise all your opinions about relationships, your role at home, everything. It's explosive!…' (quote from early female OU student).

An innovation indeed.

Robert Seatter is Head of BBC History

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