Fifty years, two million students, one radical idea

As The Open University celebrates its 50th Birthday, Louise Casella argues that it is more relevant and necessary than ever

“It is no good trying to comfort ourselves with the thought that automation need not happen here; that it is going to create so many problems that we should perhaps put our heads in the sand and let it pass us by……. we shall need a totally new attitude to the problems of apprenticeships, of training and re-training for skills.”


These words could perhaps have come from the Welsh Government Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, Lee Waters AM, or from the recent National Assembly scrutiny committee report on Industry 4.0.


They are actually words from Harold Wilson’s 1963 Labour party conference speech in which he first set out his plans for what became The Open University (OU). Wilson’s speech was a rallying call for the Labour party to develop policies to meet the needs of a scientifically advancing world and to democratise education.  When he became Prime Minister in 1964 he set about doing just that. Harold Wilson’s vision of a ‘university of the air’ was brought to life by Jennie Lee and on the 23rd April 1969 The Open University’s Royal Charter was granted and the vision and the radical idea became a reality.


For five decades the OU has been opening up education, and opportunities, to people across the UK and around the world and in that time more than 2 million people have come through our virtual doors including over 200,000 students in Wales. I’m sure you know an OU student, perhaps you were one yourself, or someone in your family is an OU graduate (I’m married to one); OU students really are everywhere. There are inspirational OU stories from the last half-century right across Wales of people transforming their lives through study and we’re looking forward to celebrating them throughout our anniversary year.


But as well as looking back and recognising the huge achievements of those who have studied with us, we need to consider how we keep opening up education for the next 50 years and why it is so important to do so.  


The world has moved on a great deal in 50 years, as has the OU. Our early students have been sharing their memories with us of being sent text books, chemistry kits, computers, and even boxes of maggots for live science experiments through the post. And I’m sure we can all remember the late-night TV broadcasts by lecturers in tank-tops that students would stay up to watch or record on a VCR. Today our students study on mobiles and laptops, take part in interactive online forums and remotely control laboratory-grade science equipment, thanks to our multi-award winning OpenSTEM Labs. The way we teach has changed enormously, but the reasons why we do it haven’t altered at all.


The need to upskill and reskill our workforce to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world is as critical now as it was in 1969. The OU’s 2018 business barometer demonstrated that Wales’ skill shortage is costing us £355m every year.  


Across the UK part-time Higher Education (HE) has a potential that is yet to be fully unleashed, but in Wales at least we have a good news story to tell. In January this year, Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced that Wales has seen a 35% increase in the number of part-time undergraduates. The swell has been attributed to a new package of funding which was offered to part-time students for the first time this year.


This new support is seen as a way to widen access to HE to those from poorer backgrounds and middle-income families. At the moment, Wales is the only country in the UK which offers this help to part-time students.


We know just from talking to our own students that this policy has made more people think about a degree. They can now get help to study, but also don’t have to think about giving up work. For The Open University in Wales, it’s meant a huge 49% increase in our new student numbers over the last year. And those students are increasingly coming from areas of historically low participation in higher education, from those with disabilities and those with caring responsibilities, for whom the need and drive to upskill and to be creative and productive in supporting their families and communities has to be met with flexible, accessible provision that allows individuals to make the choices about study that balance with their ongoing responsibilities.


Part-time study now has a more prominent role in the Welsh university landscape. It can no longer be a policy afterthought, and there is an enormous opportunity now to use the funding alongside flexible provision to meet Wales’ skills needs. There is also an opportunity for other UK nations to learn from Wales’ progress in this area, particularly as the UK Government’s Augar Review seeks to address the post-18 education challenge across the border.


As the OU turns 50, there is more need now than ever before to give all our citizens access to the education they need to achieve their ambitions. This will have a significant impact on individuals, but also on our economy. It is a chance to grow and develop our workforces, to reskill people while they are still in a job and help them stay in their communities while developing their careers and livelihoods.


Perhaps in 50 years’ time we will no longer be referring to options other than full-time campus-based university education as ‘alternatives’. A mixed economy of provision that allows someone to learn at the time of their life and in a way that suits their needs could, and should, be the norm. We simply cannot afford not to do this.


The creation of The Open University required courage, determination and a radical vision.  As a University we must continue to adapt and innovate to ensure today’s solutions meet tomorrow’s needs and build on emerging technology. As a country we need our policy making to be equally courageous and innovative – would we today embrace an idea as radical and groundbreaking as Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee’s ‘university of the air’?


Let’s hope so.  Because if the OU didn’t exist you’d absolutely need to invent it in 2019 to meet Wales’ skills challenges and deliver on commitments to social justice and social mobility.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Louise Casella is Director of the OU in Wales

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