Wilson's Open-hearted ideals

26th May 1995 at 01:00
When asked on his retirement in 1976 which of his achievements he most wanted to be remembered for, Harold Wilson put the Open University top of the list.

In many ways the "university of the air" was very much an idea of his time, opening up learning to the masses via the white-hot technology of the day. However the idea, put forward to him by Michael Young, was met at first with scepticism. A TES leader said of Mr Wilson's plans "they smack of a socialist idealism that is no longer necessary . . . is it really necessary to extend education in Britain as if we were living in the Australian outback?" The British public, however, embraced the idea. 25 years later, the OU is Britain's largest university; well over a million people have studied with it and 130,000 have graduated.

Lord Perry, who was employed in 1969 to set up the OU, said: "It was a political act- if left to academia it would never have happened. And it is a fitting memorial to him."

Harold Wilson was born in Huddersfield in 1916. He was a grammar-school boy who graduated with a first-class degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Jesus College Oxford and became an Oxford don.

He left an academic career for the hurly-burly of politics in 1945 when he became the Labour MP for Ormskirk and after becoming leader of his party in 1963 he led it to four general election victories.

The death of the grammar school and the selective system began under the Wilson governments and was continued under Tory administrations. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher has been credited with the closure of more grammars than any of her socialist predecessors.

But in 1968 he knew the battle to create a more equitable education system would be fraught with difficulties and opposition and said: "Britain today is still divided by privileges inherited from an earlier age . . . Educational divisions and privileges abound, and the comprehensive system we are now establishing is far from full achievement. It will require a strong impetus to prevent it ossifying into a still bilateral system."

The Sixties was also a time of huge expansion in higher education. In 1963 Lord Robbins published a report calling for thousands of new university and college places to meet a growing demand.

Harold Wilson may have studied among the dreaming spires, but a new generation was entering the brash new universities of Essex, Sussex and Keele and a new breed of college, the polytechnic, was in its infancy.

Lord Wilson of Rievaulx was created a life peer in 1983 and died at St Thomas's Hospital, London after a long illness.

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