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What other nation in the world could have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, The Open University, Gardeners’ Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit?

Bill Bryson, author and honorary graduate of The Open University

The year 1969 was revolutionary: in space, man landed on the moon. In the United Kingdom, one giant leap took place for education: a new university was launched that was open to all…

As long ago as the 1920s, the idea that ‘new’ technologies such as radio and television could bring education to a wide audience began to be mooted.

However, the idea only gained momentum in the early 1960s, when then Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided to address the matter. In doing so, he built on the vision of political activist Michael Young (Lord Young of Dartington) who had started a dawn university on local television.

Wilson later recalled: "…Easter Sunday (1963) I spent in the Isles of Scilly. Between church and lunch I wrote the whole outline for a University of the Air."

That University of the Air – a university without walls – was to become The Open University.

Following the general election in 1964, Jennie Lee was appointed Minister for the Arts. She became instrumental in the foundation of The Open University.

A committee of university vice-chancellors, educationalists and television broadcasters began planning in 1965, and The Open University became a firm commitment in 1966.

Professor Walter Perry was appointed our first Vice-Chancellor in 1969.

In July 1970 Margaret Thatcher (who was then Secretary of State for Education and Science) noted in a memorandum to the new Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath:


40,000 applications have already been received by The Open University… It has aroused considerable interest and expectation and attracted a surprisingly wide range of influential support.

Margaret Thatcher, 1970

From its outset, The Open University adopted a radical open admissions policy, while attaining the highest standards of scholarship. It was a model which proved extremely popular with the public.

When The Open University accepted its first students a year later, in 1971, 25,000 people enrolled and 20,000 registered on a course – at a time when the total student population in the UK was only about 130,000.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s student numbers steadily increased. Science home experiment kits and late-night TV broadcasts became the stuff of Open University folklore.

In time, new courses and subject areas were introduced; and as the importance of career development grew, professional training courses were offered alongside academic programmes.

The first postgraduate degrees were introduced; a modest project for British nationals in Brussels expanded to attract students from every country in the European Union.

In 1983 The Open University Business School – today the largest business school in Europe – opened its doors.

Expansion continued during the 1990s, with new areas of study including law and modern languages; and the introduction of named degrees.

The Open University is now a model for distance learning across the world.

In 2004, the Sunday Times declared The OU to be in the top five UK universities for teaching. In 2015, we were named the 13th best UK university as chosen by UK companies for producing the best ‘ready-for-work’ graduates.

In 2018, the World University Rankings declared The Open University to be in the top 15% of UK universities for overall student satisfaction.

Since we began, more than 2 million people worldwide have achieved their learning goals by studying with us. And as of 2019, over 120,000 students are learning with us, including 10,000 from more than 157 countries – many accessing course materials on their smartphones and tablets, studying when and where it suits them best.

While the world has come a long way in those fifty years, our founding principles remain the same:  to be open to people, places, methods and ideas.