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Last Updated: Monday, 23 June, 2003, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
The OU then and now
Open University logo
The Open University has helped more than two million students

It is 30 years since the first group of students graduated from the Open University.

BBC News Online's Justin Parkinson looks at how the great hope of widening access to higher education has fared.

On the afternoon of June 23, 1973, a group of 600 students knew they were making history.

They were the first to graduate from the Open University, which, using television and radio technology, allowed unprecedented access to degree courses.

The OU's own press release on the event was full of the "white heat of the technological revolution" preached by Harold Wilson, Prime Minister when the first courses had begun in 1969.

'Virtual field trips'

It read: "The ceremony will be unique...because in future years the number of Open University graduates is likely to be so large that regional graduation ceremonies will have to be held."

It was right.

The graduation - at Alexandra Palace, north London, where the BBC first made programmes for the OU - was a tiny gathering compared with the 158,000 undergraduates now taken on every year for its 360 or so courses.

More than two million people have benefited from its offerings, these days also available via e-mail, computer conferencing and "virtual field trips".

Jean Vernon-Jackson of Lymington, Hampshire, was one of the first undergraduates but also one of the more recent graduates - having taken a 24-year gap between the first and second halves of her course.

Early OU broadcast
The OU has relied on technology from the start

She said: "I started with the OU when I had three small children and an elderly mum to look after while my husband was overseas.

"It was rather a boring time, with conversation a bit thin on the ground.

"So it was wonderful to keep my mind going when I started studying. The OU was very different, a very brave thing to start."

Mrs Vernon-Jackson began a six-year part-time BA course in humanities in 1971, but became a magistrate, which left her with too little time to study.

Periods as town, district and county councillor - not to mention two years as mayor - left her busy until she re-started the course in 1998.


Mrs Vernon-Jackson said: "When I came back, I had more experience. I had changed and the university had changed.

"Nowadays, we get a vast pamphlet with dozens and dozens of courses offered. before it was sociology, the arts, maths and science.

"When I started we used television and radio. Nowadays, there's IT too. It's tremendous.

"The flexibility has been wonderful. The fact that I copped out for so many years and then came back - they didn't turn a hair.

Pilot OU programme
The OU was founded in 1969 to broaden access to higher education

"This makes it possible for all sorts of people to take part."

One-third of those undergraduates taking first degree courses hold less than the minimum entry requirements for traditional universities.

The oldest person to graduate was 94, the youngest 17.

Most degrees are taken part-time over six years, costing an average of 4,100, a lot cheaper than a three-year residential undergraduate course.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Brenda Gourley said: "The influence that the Open University has had on higher education is clearly evident.

"For more than 30 years the Open University has removed the barriers that have prevented many people from studying at university.

"The remarkable achievements of our graduates illustrate how a person's potential is able to develop and flourish when given the opportunity.

"The OU will continue its commitment to developing open access and help to enable people to transform their lives."

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31 Mar 00  |  Education


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