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OU family past and present celebrate 50 years of The Open University

Over the past fifty years, The Open University has touched millions of lives around the world. To celebrate this, honorary graduates, supporters, students and members of the OU family came together at a special 50th Anniversary dinner hosted by Chancellor Martha Lane Fox.

Martha Lane Fox
Open University Chancellor Martha Lane Fox

Speaking at the event, Martha Lane-Fox expressed her delight at celebrating this milestone in the University’s history:

“I have experienced some of the most amazing times watching students cross the stage to receive their degrees. I’ve met students who have taken 45 years to complete their degree, people who are in the throes of a very profound illness, people who have lost partners, people who have lost children, people who put you and me to shame. I laugh at the notion that this is a university for part-time learners, this is a university for double-time learners!”

Earliest memories of the OU

Professor Robin Wilson, who taught with the OU for 37 years and is son of OU founder Harold Wilson, spoke of how his father first conceived the idea on a family trip to the Isles of Scilly. Though the University faced opposition in the early days, Robin described the determination shared by his father and those who believed in opening up education for all. He said:

“The OU was a high priority for him, indeed at one stage he even threatened to resign if it didn’t go through.”

Honorary graduate and OU supporter Sir David Attenborough also shared his memories of the University’s early beginnings. He said:

Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough

“I never studied with The Open University, but I did have something to do with its birth – I was a kind of midwife. I was controller of BBC2 when the OU had just started and in that capacity, I met Jennie Lee. She was a formidable force of nature!”

Sir David described how BBC2 could only provide an hour and a half each night for OU lectures and felt that the original University name, ‘The University of the Air’, wasn’t quite accurate. “I did try to persuade her to change the name of her university.”

The rest, as they say, is history!

Though television has always played a huge part in The Open University story, Sir David described how the OU surpassed expectations by taking advantage of all types of technology. He said:

“You are now speaking to the whole world and you’re doing so in all the different kinds of media. You are one of the marvels of the academic world and a hope for the future, congratulations on your birthday!”

Always learning

Honorary graduate Prue Leith speaking at the OU 50th celebration event

Prue Leith, another of the University’s honorary graduates shared her experiences with education and spoke of her regret of ‘flunking out’ of Cape Town University when she was 19.

“All my life I regretted that I didn’t take advantage of what I could have had,” she said, going on to credit her family for nurturing her passion for learning. “I grew up in a family that managed to teach me that learning new stuff is just the greatest joy. All my career, which has been mixed, I haven’t started things because I desperately wanted to get into them, it was because I wanted to learn new stuff.”

Despite her successful career, Prue admitted that she has an itch for returning to higher education. “It still bugs me,” she said, “but next year I am eighty and maybe I’ll just retire and join the OU!”

Changing lives for 50 years

Felix Asare-Donkoh, Open University graduate
Felix Asare-Donkoh speaking at the OU 50th celebration event

Several current and past Open University students spoke of how education had helped them to transform their lives. Rohullah Yakobi, a Politics, Philosophy and Economics graduate, was forced to flee his home in Afghanistan as a child after being tortured by the Taliban.

“It was all over for me. No more school, no more education, no more books. Throughout the years one of the things I missed most was my school and my school friends. It was The Open University that provided the means for me of realising my dream and transforming my life and myself for the better.”

Felix Asare-Donkoh also shared his experience of studying with the OU while serving overseas in the Armed Forces. Describing the OU as being ‘a family’, he said: “The OU provides support for its students regardless of background and location in the world.”

“I have never once felt alone or out of reach when I needed support with my education, these are qualities associated with family: always there when you need them.”

Main image: Sir David Attenborough, University Chancellor Martha Lane Fox and Vice Chancellor Professor Mary Kellett help the Open University celebrate their 50th Birthday. Photograph By Chris Gorman.

Byline: Carly Sumner

Photograph of Carly Sumner

Carly Sumner is a Digital Content Officer in the Development Office at The Open University. She loves telling stories and has spent the past 10 years writing about everything from nappy bags to balance transfers. She holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Media Studies from Coventry University. When she’s not writing, Carly enjoys reading, sharing good food with great people, and all things colourful.

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