‘We are thinking rather of the people who cannot turn up regularly for ordinary classes, above all of married women housebound by their children, or those whose job keeps them travelling, those who are on shift-work or tied to a hospital, people who have to study in odd moments of the week if they are to study at all.’ [Michael Young, 1964].

It’s a tribute to the Open University that 50 years on it’s accepted as ‘part of the everyday’, an organisation that everybody knows and has very likely interacted with on some level, whether that be an enrolling on a course or watching Blue Planet. With this in mind it’s easy to forget how radical the idea of an ‘Open University’ was over 50 years ago.

In the 1960s going to university was not a choice for the majority of people living in the UK. University was viewed as a luxury, and an option for an elite few. The idea of open access to degree courses available to everyone no matter their background or status, was not even a possibility.

Social innovator Michael Young had shared his ideas on education and vision of an ‘open university’ with then leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson. In September 1963, Wilson famously announced his vision of a ‘University of the Air’. However, it was not until 6 years later that he and then Minister of State for Education Jennie Lee established The Open University, and not until 1971 when the first students enrolled.

Frustrated in the interim that ‘nothing has actually been done’. Young moved forward with the idea declaring ‘We have therefore decided to act ourselves. We are establishing a National Extension College to experiment with different ways of performing this new task.

The National Extension College (NEC) was founded by Michael Young in 1963 as a pilot for what he intended to be the nucleus of an open university. The NEC would have three functions:

  • Improve the quality of distance learning courses
  • Promote a range of learning opportunities.
  • Teach through a variety of methods including broadcasting.

And indeed the NEC piloted education through a variety of media, books, cassettes, broadcasts, models, experiment kits, online materials, residential schools. The OU took on some of these ideas, particularly in the way it partnered with broadcasting. 

NEC believed in not just instructing students but stimulating, entertaining, and encouraging learning. The OU shared the same ethos of widening participation and stated that: knowledge should not just be acquired but engaged with.

In the early days NEC and OU worked together on preparatory courses for students intending to start on the OU courses, and we maintain a good relationship to this day.

We are immensely proud of our shared history, ethos and of our  relationship with The Open University. It’s testament to the OU and distance learning that 50 years on we are celebrating this treasured and important organisation. Happy 50th birthday Open University!

Join in the #OU50 celebrations at 50.open.ac.uk

On Thursday BBC 4 will be broadcasting a new hour long documentary ‘Happy Birthday OU: 50 Years of The Open University’, and will feature NEC Chief Executive Dr Ros Morpeth OBE speaking on the origins of the National Extension College and how these ideas helped form the basis of the Open University.   

Thanks to blog contributor’s and historians Kate Marks and Anna Gibbons. Whilst both studying history at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, Kate and Anna interned with NEC in the Summer 2018. During this time they complied an extensive archive of the National Extension College.

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