Firm principles far and wide

1st May 2009 at 01:00
The Open University is 40 this year. Neil Munro looks at its achievements in Scotland

The Open University held a birthday bash at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday to celebrate its first four decades. So far, so normal.

But, for an even more special celebration, it is heading to Lerwick in September for a degree ceremony. This is not just a symbolic recognition of "distance no object" for the pioneer of distance learning, it is also a tribute to the fact that more Shetlanders study OU courses than in any other part of the UK - the 156 OU students in 2007-08 represented 8.8 per 1,000 of the adult population, twice the Scottish average.

This is a "special bond," Peter Syme, director of the OU in Scotland, says. It has been strongly supported by the local authority, island schools and the oil industry.

If Shetland has given a great deal to the OU, Scotland can be said to have made it all possible. The driving force behind its creation was Jennie Lee, the arts minister in Harold Wilson's Labour government in the 1960s, a native of Lanarkshire and widow of Aneurin Bevan, who established the National Health Service. She began work on "the university of the air" in 1964, an initiative which Wilson would later describe as the proudest achievement in the eight years of his premiership.

It was much contested: a top Tory Iain Macleod, of Scots parents and an old Fettesian, called it "blithering nonsense". So, as Professor Syme recalls, the first decade was spent establishing credentials and academic respectability, a task that fell to Walter Perry, another Scot, who guided it through the early squalls as its first vice-chancellor from 1969- 79.

This year's celebration is as much about the institution's survival as its two score years. The initial brickbats - including wry smiles about what went on at the famous student summer schools held at Stirling University (now defunct in the online age) - did not appear in 1969 to make its success a foregone conclusion.

Then the online age posed another serious threat, as all colleges and universities went into the distance learning business. But the OU is now the UK's largest university, teaching almost 200,000 students a year (14,000 in Scotland). It has the largest number of part-time undergraduatess in Scotland - 40 per cent of the total compared with the University of the West of Scotland, the next biggest (10 per cent).

It was ahead of its time in ticking what are now seen as all the right boxes - promoting access to higher education, advancing lifelong learning and doing its bit for inclusion; 14 per cent of its students come from the 20 per cent most deprived areas and the number of people on its courses who are on low income or unemployed has increased by nearly 30 per cent in the past five years.

The OU kept faith with its founding principles, in embracing new technologies: in 2008, it became the first to offer free downloadable course material via iTunesu.

Despite operating in a more competitive market than could have been envisaged, the OU is firmly established on the HE landscape. It consistently ranks near the top in student surveys for the quality of its materials and its learners' support.

Professor Syme believes it has stood the test of time, partly because it has stuck to its principles. "We had no entry requirements 40 years ago and we have no entry requirements now," he says. "That's a radical notion in 2009, just as it was in 1969."

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