Asa Briggs

Radio show tribute to Asa Briggs: The Last Victorian Improver

In a special ‘Archive on 4’ programme Tristram Hunt MP explores the exhaustingly energetic life of one of his heroes - the historian Asa Briggs, who was instrumental in the founding of the University of Sussex and The Open University. The programme airs on BBC Radio 4 this Saturday 7th January at 8pm.

From a childhood helping run his dad's struggling shop in Depression-era West Yorkshire to becoming a prominent historian and towering figure in education; by the time of his death last year, Asa Briggs had come a long way.

Briggs’ career began at break-neck speed

At 16, he arrived at Cambridge University from his grammar school on a scholarship. Not content with that, he did a second degree at the same time.  By the age of 21, he was cracking codes at Bletchley Park and in 1945, he turned down the offer of a safe Labour seat. In his late 20s, he had a fellowship at Oxford and in 1951, he went on a road trip round Syria and Turkey with a young student of his - Rupert Murdoch.

The Open University Chancellor Asa Briggs addressing the audience at a graduation ceremony.

The Open University Chancellor Asa Briggs addressing the audience at a graduation ceremony.

Briggs became the official historian of the BBC, where he learned to run institutions - and then grabbed the chance to build one himself.  First as a Dean, then as Vice-Chancellor, at the new University of Sussex. He was there from the start - building up the institution from a port-a-cabin office at first.  He made Sussex the most glamorous of the new universities of the 1960s, appearing on chat shows with David Frost and James Baldwin and being interviewed by Vogue.

And then he played a major role in shaping a much bigger, more radical institution: The Open University.

Asa Briggs and The Open University

The academic consultant to the programme, Dr Daniel Weinbren, has written about the history of The Open University, and says that Asa Briggs focused on how to support learners and make the best of new technologies:

While a member of the committee which planned the OU back in the mid-60s Asa Briggs chaired its working group on students and curriculum. His focus remained on support for learning and learners. As Chancellor, 1978-94, his offers of guidance and advice made excellent use of his networks and experiences. He welcomed the use of technologies which promoted communication and understood the practicalities as he personally used them to teach OU students.

The last of the Victorians

In the hour-long programme, Tristram Hunt argues that Asa Briggs was the last of the Victorian improvers, for a number of reasons:

  • First, through his benevolent Victorian grandfather, who talked to him, took him seriously, and took him on tours of the architectural glories of the industrial North of England.
  • Second, Briggs was a leading historian of the Victorian era, and played a huge role in rescuing it from the calumnies of the Bloomsbury Group and giving the Victorians' drive to improve 'ordinary' lives their due.
  • But third, Hunt argues, Asa Briggs was a Victorian himself - in the sense that he wanted to sustain their great effort to improve life right through the twentieth century.  His great mission to open up access to education - which drove him to build Sussex and The Open University - was both a mission to modernise and to build on the Victorians' legacy.

With contributions from Dan Briggs, Jean Seaton, David Kynaston, Miles Taylor, and Bill Cash MP, the programme will be broadcast on Saturday 7th January at 8pm on BBC Radio 4.

Find out more

OpenLearn has resources and information on topics related to this broadcast, including a feature about Asa Briggs and his significant role in founding The University of Sussex and The Open University, and his connection to Bletchley Park.

Learn more with courses on European history and Understanding Politics.

The series was commissioned for the University by Open Media and Informal Learning (OMIL), the OU Nominated Academic is Dr. Daniel Weinbren and the Media Fellow is Dr. Chris Williams.