Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


U.K. Open University opens its doors

In January of 1971, the UK Open University began its operations, putting in practice a new concept in adult and higher education. For Walter Perry, the first Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, the concept of the Open University evolved from the convergence of three major postwar educational trends: a) developments in the provision for adult education; b) the growth of educational broadcasting, and c) the political objective of promoting the spread of egalitarianism in education (Perry, 1976).

The Background

By 1971, when the Open University was established, Great Britain had long been the site of innovative ideas in adult education. As early as 1924, the Adult Education Committee of the Board of Education and the British Institute of Adult Education partnered with the BBC for produce a series of regular talks, distributing 20,000 copies of a printed syllabus. Shortly thereafter, in 1926, J.S. Stobart wrote a memorandum to Lord Reith regarding the possibility of a “wireless university” (Perry, 1976). Decades later, on Easter Sunday, 1963, Harold Wilson, Leader of the Labour Opposition, arrived at the idea of a “University of the Air” (MacArthur, 1974). He may have been influenced by a number of sources: the 1961 Independent Television Authority (ITA) pamphlet by Professor George Wedell; the arguments of prominent engineer R.C.G. Williams for a “televarsity” linking correspondence technical study, broadcast and school visits; or the 1962 article endorsing a “National Extension College” written by Dr. Michael Young, the head of Labour Party Research (Perry, 1976). He may also have been aware of talks between the BBC and the Ministry of Education regarding a “College of the Air”. It is certain that, during his visits to the Soviet Union, Wilson discovered that 60% of Soviet engineers had earned their degrees via correspondence supplemented by radio broadcasting and followed by one year of university study in Moscow.  In addition, Wilson was a friend of United States Senator William Benton, the Chairman of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he was interested in the potential of the teaching films produced by Benton’s company. Wilson thought it was possible to integrate the Soviet method with U.S. visual teaching aids (MacArthur, 1974).

On September 8th, 1963, Wilson made a speech in Glasgow proposing a “University of the Air”, a program of nationally-organized correspondence courses with supplemental material to be presented on a fourth television channel  (“Early Development”, 1972). Wilson’s plan implied a consortium of various interests: university extra-mural departments, Workers’ Education Association, BBC education work, correspondence colleges, and local night classes  (Perry, 1976). Even so, there was no explicit “mention that it was to be a university to redeem the failure of the traditional universities to recruit more than a small proportion of their students from working class homes” (MacArthur, 1974, p.4). Moreover, Wilson’s initial concept did not begin to define the institution that ultimately emerged, with its own charter, genuine academic standards and autonomy (MacArthur, 1974).

In 1964 the “University of the Air” appeared in the Labour Manifesto for the general election in October, which Labour won by a small majority. In March 1965, Prime Minister Wilson appointed Jennie Lee to the position of Minister of Arts in the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, and removed responsibility for Arts from Treasury to the Department of Education and Science (MacArthur, 1974). Lee was Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee convened to investigate the practicability of Wilson’s project  (“Early Development”, 1972). She reported directly to the Prime Minster and had full responsibility for championing the cause of the “University of the Air”. As one historian noted, “Mr. Wilson knew that by selecting Jennie to steer [the Open University] into being, he had chosen a politician of steely will, coupled both with 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 Department of Education and Sciences (DES) but also in universities, among MPs, and among the community of Adult Educators” (MacArthur, 1974, p. 5). Lee visited Moscow and Chicago (the home of Wilson’s Benton-Britannica connection) on research while Lord Goodman conducted negotiations with the BBC to determine if there was an educational case for a fourth television channel (MacArthur, 1974).

By 1965, the proposal for a “College of the Air” initiated by the previous Conservative Government was ready for submission to the ministers. Lee flatly rejected the idea – for her, only a university would do (MacArthur, 1974). Lee was mindful of the fact that Adult Education was not well-respected by the DES and considered to be “the patch on the backside of our educational trousers” (Perry, 1976). She therefore insisted that the institution must be able to award recognized academic degrees with no compromise on academic standards (MacArthur, 1974). As stated in the February 1966 White Paper, A University of the Air, “There can be no question of offering to students a makeshift project inferior in quality to other universities. That would defeat its whole purpose. Its status will be determined by the quality of its teaching” (MacArthur, 1974, p. 6). Critics charged that the scheme was an obscene waste of money: socialism at its impractical worst  (Perry, 1976). Perhaps the public disagreed: Labour was returned to an even larger majority Government on 31 March 1966.

Afterwards, Jennie Lee worked with BBC executives on the financial details, and tabled reports demonstrating that the project was feasible. She also developed the Open University’s first clear statement of purpose: an educational body offering general degrees (not honours) consisting of two majors and three minors, under the leadership of a Vice-Chancellor, and accountable to the DES instead of the traditional University Grants Committee. Broadcasting support was to be provided by BBC2 and BBC Radio. Unfortunately, a fourth television channel was too expensive at £25 million (MacArthur, 1974). Despite a lack of enthusiasm from Cabinet, bureaucrats, educators, and the press, the project went ahead on the support of the Prime Minister and propelled by Lee  (Perry, 1976). Sir Peter Venables was selected to maintain the momentum as Chairman of the Planning Committee (MacArthur, 1974). The final report was submitted to Edward Short, the Secretary of State for Education and Science on 31 December 1968, and it was accepted 28 January 1969 (MacArthur, 1974), thus committing the Government to fund the project with an annual sum of £3.7 million (Perry, 1976). On 30 May 1969, the Charter of the Open University was given Royal Assent, and became an autonomous and independent institution .  The University Council consisted of thirty-nine members, drawn from a variety of public institutions, “broadly representing those segments of the public with a legitimate interest in the future of the University” (Early Development, 1972, p. 2).

Walter Perry, the former Vice-Principal of Edinburgh University, was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Open University and had eighteen months to implement the plan without the benefit of an administrative staff, independent budget, or identity separate from the DES. Fortunately, he discovered that there was emerging goodwill from the educational community and other key stakeholders (Early Development, 1972). Nevertheless, some Government ministers resented the fact that no Labour party appointees were named to the executive, even though the executive had a considerable left-of-centre bias (Perry, 1976). Venables and Perry insisted that the new university must be politically independent to have any academic credibility, and Lee concurred. Perry’s first task was to determine the number of potential students – estimates had ranged from 170,000 to 450,000, of whom 34,000 to 150,000 might enroll. After much debate, an agreement was reached that the student population would level out at 36,000 to 42,000, and construction began on Open University headquarters at Milton Keynes (MacArthur, 1974) as the number of full-time staff rose from 4 to 183 (Early Development, 1972). In the summer of 1970, shortly before the University was set to open, the Labour Government fell to the Conservatives and the bipartisan tactics of Lee, Venables and Perry proved to be a wise strategy (Perry, 1976). The new Government still endorsed the university, but it cut its budget by £1 million over three years, via its new Minister of Education, Margaret Thatcher (MacArthur, 1974).

January 1971: Open University Opens

As school begins in 1971, some 19,500 students are registered for courses (Universities in Britain, 1973). The students enrolling at the Open University are adults in their 20s-40s, all of whom study part-time, and many of whom work full-time during their studies. They must earn six academic credits for a pass degree, and eight credits for an honours degree. Given that one credit requires 350 hours of study, self-paced degrees are estimated to take 2-8 years to earn (Tunstall, 1974). Fees at the Open University are lower than in conventional British higher education -- from a minimum of £200 for an ordinary BA and £250 for an honours degree (Universities in Britain, 1973).

The Open University has three streams: undergraduate, post-graduate, and post-experience. Undergraduate courses are offered in arts, educational studies, mathematics, science, social sciences, and technology (Universities in Britain, 1973). There are no academic entrance qualifications, unlike other British Universities, which require two or three A levels (Tunstall, 1974). Even so, applicants must be aged 21 or over (Universities in Britain, 1973). The Open University operates on a calendar year system, without terms or semesters, beginning in January and ending with November exams (Tunstall, 1974).

Course delivery at the Open University differs from those at all other British Universities, combining broadcasts on television and radio, correspondence work, and summer school (Universities in Britain, 1973). The syllabus for each course consists of “correspondence units” (printed materials) and “broadcast units” (recorded programming). The Open University has independent book publishing operations to publish its course materials. Radio and television programmes are integrated with written material and transmitted during off-peak times through BBC Radio and BBC2. Science students also receive a “home experiment kit” that includes a microscope (Tunstall, 1974). In first-level courses, one-week summer school sessions are held in other universities where more conventional teaching is provided in the form of lectures, seminars, and/or lab work (Universities in Britain, 1973).

The Open University has a “course team” approach instead of individual teachers. A counseling and teaching force is employed on a part time basis: students meet counselors at local study centers; and “course tutors” teach evening and weekend sessions in addition to grading written assignments. “Lecturers” do not lecture, but instead design courses, edit readers, set exams and make broadcasts. For its part, the BBC recruits young academics and trains them in radio and television production. Staff at the Open University have titles unheard-of in other British academic institutions, for example: photographic manager, copyrights manager, director of marketing, manager of correspondence services, chief systems analyst, and project control officer. The national reach of the Open University makes it necessary to employ sophisticated computer technology to grade assignments, record transcripts and operate the mailing schedule (Tunstall, 1974).

Postscript: Looking back

Proponents of the Open University argued for its reach and cost-effective delivery of adult education. Without a student campus, they reasoned, it incurred significantly lower capital costs. Moreover, in 1973, a British academic at a traditional university could teach only eight part-time students, whereas an Open University academic could teach 180 part-time students (Tunstall, 1974). Nevertheless, Open University was not without its flaws: the failure rate was significant, albeit relatively low for part-time higher education. This is not surprising, however, considering the variability among Open University students was substantially greater than any conventional university. Student backgrounds varied financially, educationally, as well as by age and outside commitments (work, family, etc). Inside the organization, staff complained of overwork and absence of research time, and management worried about the finite amount of BBC broadcast time available as enrollment increased in an age before the VCR. Furthermore, critics charged that the Open University had failed the working class by insisting upon the “university” moniker and catering to the middle class values it represented (Tunstall, 1974). After all, in her effort to navigate the political minefield, Jennie Lee had sought advice from the University world, ignoring the world of adult education, including extramural departments, the Workers’ Educational Association and local education authorities that Harold Wilson had included in his original consortium concept. It took the Open University a very long time to overcome this resentment  (Perry, 1976).


British Information Services. (1973). Universities in Britain. London: Central Office of Information.

MacArthur, Brian. (1974). An interim history of the Open University. In Jeremy Tunstall (ed.), The Open University Opens (3-17). London: Routledge.

Perry, Walter. (1976). Open University: A personal account by the first Vice-Chancellor. Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University Press.

The Open University. (1972). Report of the Vice-Chancellor. The Early Development of the Open University. London: Open University.

Tunstall, Jeremy. (1974). Introduction. In Jeremy Tunstall (ed.), The Open University Opens (vii-xx). London: Routledge.

Prepared by Jennifer Shelton (OISE/UT)

December 2001


A footnote to Jennifer Shelton’s account of the opening of the Open University in the UK

By Daniel Weinbren, Open University, UK, June 2010


Citation: Shelton, Jennifer (2001). 1971: U.K. Open University opens its doors.. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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