This year, on 23rd April – a significant day for lovers of all things English – The Open University (OU) celebrated its 40th anniversary. The OU is now the UK’s largest university, teaching almost 200,000 students each year and, since its establishment in 1969, it has helped over 2m students further career development or fulfil lifelong ambitions of learning.

In 1926 the educationalist and historian, J C Stobart – while working for the BBC – wrote a memo on a ‘wireless university’. By the early 1960s, many proposals were being debated – such as a ‘teleuniversity’, which would combine broadcast lectures with correspondence texts and visits to conventional universities. In 1963, Harold Wilson stated, in a speech in Glasgow: “Today I want to outline new proposals on which we are working, a dynamic programme providing facilities for home study to university and higher standards.”

When Labour won the 1964 election, Wilson asked Jennie Lee to take on the ‘University of the Air’ project. This project met with hostility and scepticism but thousands registered to study. Forty years on, The OU is in the top three of the National Students Survey of Student Satisfaction and, in the recent UK universities Research Assessment Exercise, rose 23 places in the UK research league table, with 14% of its research described as ‘world leading’ and more than 50% described as ‘internationally excellent’.

In 2008 The OU became the first university to offer free downloadable course material via iTunesU and, today, over 50,000 OU tracks are downloaded from iTunesU each week. Also in 2008, the OU launched its own online video community site called ‘ouView in YouTube’


In India, Turkey and China, universities based on The OU model each have more than 1m students. Most countries now have their own open learning provision.
Comment: The OU is now such an accepted part of our way of life that it would be inconceivable if it did not exist. It its idiosyncratic way, the OU has done much to make open and distance learning – with its close relation, e-learning – acceptable. Moreover, since at least 75% of the FTSE top 100 companies have sponsored their staff to take OU courses, this phenomenon relates to more than just the academic sector. Happy birthday, OU!