JUST occasionally Governments have good ideas.
The Open University was one of them. In fact, it was Huddersfield’s own Harold Wilson who got the ball rolling, in 1963, when he announced that his Government would be funding a ‘University of the Air’ project.
On April 23, 1969, the university went live and is now celebrating 40 years of bringing higher education to people who might otherwise not have been able to study.
Today the OU is a respected and widely-known organisation but in the 1960s there was scepticism, even hostility, over the fact that students needed no entry qualifications and that undergraduates would be awarded degrees for doing little more than “watching television”.
The woman employed to direct the project, Jennie Lee, says she had to fight “the conservatism and vested interests of the academic world’’.
As a former student of the OU I’m sincerely glad that she won the battle. I also think that the OU offers an economical model for further education in the future, one that current politicians would do well to study.
I remember my first tutorial at Huddersfield University and meeting my fellow students, who included a couple of retired people, a young father who wanted to improve his job prospects, a librarian, postman and a housewife who, like myself, just wanted to learn.
Our tutor was a philosophy lecturer. He introduced us to the rarified world of determinism and the writings of Jeremy Bentham. I’d never heard of either.
During our Arts 101 foundation course we covered music, art, literature, philosophy and history. The excellently written course focussed on the industrial revolution. Huddersfield, surrounded by woollen mills and weavers’ cottages, was the ideal place to be studying such material and I looked with a fresh perspective on the packhorse lanes and Victorian gentleman’s houses.
The OU opened my eyes to aspects of our history and culture that I’d never considered and was ahead of its time in that it was the first educational organisation to adopt a multi media approach. We watched television programmes, read books and course material, networked with each other by telephone and attended tutorials with a ‘live’ teacher.
There was a strong camaraderie between us and we looked forward to the annual summer school week, when we had the chance to live like ‘real’ university students for a few heady days a year. It was also an eye-opener.
It is said that marriages are made – and broken – at OU summer schools. Certainly, the personal column of the OU students magazine suggested that quite a lot of romancing went on in the other-worldly atmosphere of full-time summer school on a university campus.
My recollection is of time standing still and a sense that the world outside no longer existed. We were all 18 again, with no responsibilities. Perhaps it’s not surprising that compelling liaisons are formed under such circumstances.
Summer school was such a literal hotbed that one of my fellow students was accompanied by her husband (himself a former OU student) who gatecrashed lectures to keep an eye on her.
But I digress from the work of the OU, which proves that it’s possible to combine work or family life with study and not necessary to run up thousands of pounds of debt to get a degree.
l The OU is the country’s biggest university, with 200,000 students each year - 15% of which get help with course fees and are from disadvantaged communities.