The People’s University

The pioneering Open University was Harold Wilson’s brainchild, but it was Jennie Lee’s social vision that brought it to fruition.

Arts minister Jennie Lee announcing the creation of the Open University in September 1967. (Photo by Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.)

The Open University was first established as a futuristic ‘university of the air’, designed, according to Harold Wilson, ‘to provide an opportunity for those who . . . have not been able to take advantage of higher education’, using the benefits of modern TV and radio. But as innovative as the pedagogy and technology of the OU was, it can only really be understood within a broader history of adult education in Britain.

For many decades organisations like the Workers’ Educational Association brought learning to many of those who found themselves excluded from the traditional pathway through night schools and correspondence courses. In fact, many within the Labour Party had themselves been educated through these programmes. They could often be transformative for their students but were often difficult to fit around work and were of varying quality. By the time Jennie Lee became the minister for the arts in 1964 she knew that that ‘the days when people would go out to the old-fashioned night schools and sit on hard benches’ were ‘receding’. If Labour was serious about bringing education to the masses, they would need to abandon the ‘dowdy and mouldy’ old systems and embrace a new approach.

Tony Crosland’s alleged declaration that his education policy amounted to destroying ‘every fucking grammar school in England, and Wales, and Northern Ireland’, may have been apocryphal, but it demonstrated the Wilson government’s embrace of education as an egalitarian social force rather than a method through which privilege could be reproduced. The 1963 Robbins Report, commissioned and published under Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, recommended the expansion of universities under the principle that higher education should be available to ‘all who were qualified by ability and by attainment’. Once Labour returned to power the following year, this was given a new spin by a government which believed in education as a pathway to social change. The OU was intended to provide education of the highest possible quality to as broad a range of students as possible. There was to be no compromise in the standard or variety of topics for study. The university became an emblem of democratised education with lectures that anyone could catch on television in the early hours of the morning, and courses that anyone could apply for.

Many understood the OU as a manifestation of the Wilson government’s futuristic focus on technology and science as drivers of social change. The ‘university of the air’ was possible because of advances in broadcasting, and Labour’s embrace of the ‘white heat of technology’ entailed a modernist approach to education. Wilson painted a picture of ‘technicians and technologists’ who had left school early but, after working in industry, would now be ready to pursue a degree; the OU was partly intended to meet a skills gap that the Labour Party felt was holding the country back.

But Jennie Lee’s own, more complex vision for the OU is critical to this story. The university was Wilson’s brainchild, but it was Lee who brought the plan to fruition. This success was despite resistance from the education sector; the Times Educational Supplement described the original plans for the OU as ‘the sort of cosy scheme that shows the socialists at their most endearing but impractical worst’. The BBC was also sceptical of the plans; nevertheless, the newly-launched BBC2 became a key element of the OU broadcast policy. Although the popular memory is that these programmes were shown in the small hours of the morning to breastfeeding mothers and students stumbling in from the pub, this was deliberate: before the widespread availability of video-recorders, programmes had to be broadcast when their audience had a chance of catching them — weekends during the day, and in the week when people had a chance to get home from their day jobs.

The OU has been dismissed by some as ‘merely’ providing education to middle-class women, the ‘housewives who might like to secure qualifications in English literature or geography or history’ invoked by Wilson in his original speech. It certainly didn’t train up as many of the working-class young male technologists as Wilson might have hoped. But bringing education to women whose post-school choices had been constrained by patriarchal assumptions about marriage and child-rearing was itself a radical pedagogical practice.

Even more importantly, perhaps, the OU made universities visible and comprehensible to ordinary people. Sitting in a living room watching an oddly dressed lecturer speak enthusiastically about computer programming, architectural history, or art and the environment demystified the concept of higher education (even if the content of the courses remained mystifying to many casual viewers). When Jennie Lee laid the foundation stone for the first OU library in Milton Keynes, she had spoken of her pride in ‘a great independent university which does not insult any man or any women whatever their background by offering them the second best. Nothing but the best is good enough’.