Origins of the open university


The Open University is a higher education establishment that provides distance learning opportunities to students from all over the world. With over 174,000 students currently enrolled in one of their various degree subjects, it is considered one of the biggest universities in the world. It has also consistently scored well on student satisfaction surveys, making it a popular choice for those who want to continue their education but don’t want to attend a traditional, brick and mortar university. Whether you want to study part-time while working or full-time from home, the Open University is an excellent choice for distance learner. However, where does it all come from? Here is a little bit of history about the OU.

History of distance learning

Before we delve into the history of the Open University, have you ever considered where distance learning actually came from? One of the earliest forms of distance learning actually spans back to the 1700s, when an advert appeared in the Boston Gazette offering to teach people shorthand through mailed lessons, on a weekly basis. This didn’t really take off, but in the 1840s Sir Isaac Pitman attempted something similar. He offered to teach shorthand by mailing his students shorthand texts on postcards. His students would then reply with transcriptions, with Pitman would correct and send back. The first real distance learning degrees, however, came from the University of London (UCL). The ‘External Programme’ was set up in 1858 and enabled people from different backgrounds to study from wherever they were based.

The beginning of the Open University

Fast forward to the 1960s, and planning for the Open University commenced. Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister of the UK at the time, founded the OU using ideas from British activist and sociologist, Michael Young. After years of planning, the Open University first opened its ‘doors’ in 1969. However, it wasn’t an easy ride to get the OU off the ground. Harold Wilson faced plenty of opposition against the idea and the costs started to rise unprecedentedly. By the time they worked out how much this was going to cost, it was too late to scrap the idea. They had to continue with their plan and get the Open University up and running.

The first students

While the Open University may have officially opened in 1969, the first students didn’t actually enroll until two-years later, in 1971. One significant group that the OU catered for, right from the very beginning, was prisoners. Two prisons were given access to the Open University’s courses to begin with, giving inmates the option to study for a degree while they were incarcerated. The British Home Office paid the fees for the student’s books, supplies, films and cassettes, so that the prisoners could begin learning straight away. In 1971, a grand total of 22 prisoners started studying with the Open University. Nowadays, over 150 prisons in the UK and Ireland provide access to OU courses for their inmates.

Bored housewives

There was a lot of speculation that the OU would only attract bored housewives who had nothing better to do. However, when the first applications came in, something surprising happened. Firstly, 42,000 people applied for the 25,000 available places. Secondly, only 25% of the applicants were women! Over 30% of the applicants had the minimum entry qualifications to attend university, and many were teachers hoping to graduate and get higher pay. No one had anticipated how popular distance learning with the Open University was going to be… Not even Harold Wilson himself.

From 1969 until today, over 2 millions students have studied courses provided by the Open University. Some have other qualifications, some do not. Some are bored housewives, some are not. Some are prisoners, some are not. The Open University has proven that whoever you are, whatever level of education you have, and wherever you are in the world, you can study and further your education. Hooray for distance learning!