The Open University at 50

50 years ago Jennie Lee founded the Open University. Its mission was simple: to open the doors of higher education to millions who had been locked out.

Fifty years ago, as NASA prepared to put the first astronauts onto the surface of the moon, the Open University (OU) — rebranded from Harold Wilson’s original ‘University of the Air’ — was granted its Royal Charter and started preparing to admit its first batch of students.

As Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon that July, he declared that it was ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. The boundaries broken by OU’s pioneering learners might seem more modest — tuning into the airwaves of radio and television for their course work. But both events sprang from the same optimism that technological advance could be harnessed as a positive force for the progress of human society.

In its own way the founding of a university where, without prior qualification, you could switch on your TV to study for a degree was as miraculous for Britons as switching on to see the grainy black and white images of man walking on the moon. And it was Tribune’s Jennie Lee, Harold Wilson’s minister of the arts, who achieved it.

Her opponents numbered some of her own Labour colleagues in government, as well as a broad swathe of the British establishment in the civil service, academia, and elsewhere. The Times Higher Education Supplement described plans for the OU as ‘the sort of cosy scheme that shows the socialists at their most endearing but impractical worst.’ As the late Patricia Hollis, herself a formidable woman in politics, wrote in her biography of Jennie Lee: ‘she drove it through against almost universal hostility by steely political will’.

Lee had been left heart-broken by the premature death of her husband Nye Bevan. Her appointment to ministerial office by Harold Wilson gave her a new purpose and a challenge. In their three-decade personal and political partnership, she had shared with Bevan a vision of opening up the world through culture and education to working people who had been left behind by poor schooling, poverty, and the class divide.

Jennie Lee’s own education had come through a local council scholarship to the University of Edinburgh in the 1920s and she maintained a fierce passion that nothing was too good for the working class. Her previous initiatives — the White Paper on the Arts and tripling funding for the Arts Council — were also informed by this same vision.

She refused to accept that there needed to be any conflict between excellence and equality, always striving to level up, not down. That sustained her as she pushed through the South Bank’s National Theatre project, championing the National Youth Orchestra, and pouring investment into Scotland, Wales, and the English regions.

At the same time she used every resource to promote the Open University. Where she could, she charmed sceptical academics and civil service mandarins, while working with Wilson’s fixer Arnold Goodman as chair of the Arts Council. Eventually they settled on the combination of face-to-face group tutoring, assignments through the post, TV, radio (and in the 1970s, tapes), as well as day, weekend, and summer schools.

Jennie Lee faced a race against time to get the university up and running in Milton Keynes before the general election in 1970. Iain Macleod, the Tories’ would-be chancellor, had described the project as ‘blithering nonsense’, and she knew that they would set about dismantling any project that was not complete.


The workers on the campus site, struggling to keep to deadline as Christmas approached, received a passionate speech in which she told them, ‘you’re not building a university for the rich but for yourselves.’ They duly worked through the holidays and got it done.

Lee was literally laying the commemorative stone at the OU’s headquarters at Walton Hall on the day the 1970 general election was announced — which in June would return the Conservatives to power, and cost her both ministerial office and her seat in parliament.

But with 43,000 students applying by July 1970, the Open University had joined the NHS as a Labour institution that the Tories dared not abolish. Already, it was on the way to becoming the beacon of outreach education that has made it iconic both at home and abroad.

The story of the OU and Jennie Lee is just part of the enduring focus on adult-learning that has burnt brightly throughout Labour’s history. We are determined that it must burn brightly in Labour’s future too, as part of Labour’s National Education Service.

That is the purpose of our Lifelong Learning Commission, our party’s most ambitious initiative for adult education in decades. After months of preparation and discussion, we’ve selected fourteen commissioners to take the project forward as an independent body. They come with a wealth of experience from the worlds of work and learning; from higher and further education; the trade union movement and civil society. But all have a passion to cut across the structural divides that have too often hampered progress in our society.

Why are we doing this now? Because the moral and social arguments that have long been advanced by socialists for prioritising lifelong learning are now coalescing with the economic ones. The worlds of higher, further, online, and distance learning are morphing into each other far more rapidly than many in Whitehall realise. Failure to recognise this won’t spare us from its consequences, it will simply leave us behind.

As the Leitch report on skills first projected a decade ago, huge numbers of workers will need to work longer and retrain by the 2020s. That is why we need a systematic, radical plan of action covering the whole age spectrum, one that recognises changing patterns of work, including those wrought by automation, but also the need for proper work–life balance, rights, and empowerment.

We are entering a world where we must empower and enthuse people for new learning and skills at all stages in their lives, far from a traditional model of education that assumes that what people learn between their late teens and mid-twenties will be sufficient for their lives, jobs, and careers thereafter.

Labour’s plans are a fundamental challenge to the attitude of Tory-led governments since 2010, which have seen education as a commodity — a private consumable to be pursued by competition rather than collaboration. We want to re-instil the vision of education as a public good, and build a system that can handle the challenges of the future.

The Tory approach is now widely accepted to be failing, leaving us with a million fewer adult learners since 2010. It has been a disaster not only for the most disadvantaged, but all of those looking to learn and develop in life.

Our plans are radically different, integrating higher and further education into a framework for lifelong learning, including locally-based initiatives from councils, co-operatives, unions, and other groups, echoing the way Labour offered ideas for the great social reforms of the 1945–51 Attlee government. And if we really want to achieve ‘education of the people, by the people, for the people’, that means strengthening these circles of cooperation.

Like Jennie Lee, we know we face a task that will not be easy — worthwhile achievements seldom are. But given the current climate of division and uncertainty in our country it is hugely important that we embark on it now. Paths to hope often come out of times of turmoil, just as they did in 1945.

It’s fitting therefore that our Lifelong Learning Commission is being taken forward in this fiftieth anniversary year of the Open University, whose founders shared those objectives. The National Education Service is the twenty-first century successor to Jennie Lee and Harold Wilson’s vision.

It reflects the values James Callaghan spoke about in his 1976 speech at the workers’ education college of Ruskin in Oxford, when he said: ‘the labour movement has always cherished education: free education, comprehensive education, adult education . . . Education for life.’ We know that we are building upon the shoulders of others — with our own personal experiences of adult and further education spurring us on in that tradition.

The National Education Service will be about social justice, but also practical and economic necessity. It will be about our country’s social cohesion, but also about individual and cultural enrichment. It will be about expanding people’s ability to learn while they earn — as well as the other way round. It reminds us that education is not something that is simply drummed into people, but a process that empowers and engages their talents and aspirations, for their, and all our benefits.

About the Author

Angela Rayner is the shadow secretary of state for education. She is the Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne.

Gordon Marsden is the shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills. He is the Labour MP for Blackpool South and a former tutor at the Open University.