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Fifty years later: Pioneer student Sir Christopher shares his OU story

Sir Christopher Coville was one of the very first to study with The Open University, starting a Science Foundation course in 1971. Fifty years on, he shares his story of how studying helped to change his life and how a science kit almost landed him in hot water.

In 1971 I was a Royal Air Force fast-jet pilot flying Lightnings at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. Early one Saturday morning towards the end of February, there was a frantic rapping on the door, I opened it to find two RAF police sergeants at the door, Warren and Medley.

Sergeant Warren said: “Sir, we have disturbing reports of strange odours emanating from your garage. You do not have to say anything but anything you do say might be used in evidence against you in a court of law.”

Fifteen minutes later, having been introduced to The Open University’s S100 experimentation kit, two bemused sergeants left persuaded that I was not involved in anything narcotic or satanic, but they were totally sure that I was completely deranged: a common sentiment directed towards the first batch of Open University students in 1971.

Marvellous experiences

And what a year: three months of postal strikes, long journeys to collect our coursework and our assignments, late-nights watching television programmes. The CMAs (Computer Marked Assignments) we had to fill in with a HB pencil, but at least we knew that if you had a guess you had a one in four chance of getting it right!

There were Tutor Marked Assignments every month, and the Summer Schools, the bonding, meeting Dr Mike Pentz after seeing him on television; what a wonderful charismatic man he was. Learning about the periodic table, cell dynamics and the control of molecular activity, all marvellous experiences.

It changed my life

Now I have no doubt that The Open University was something that really changed my future and it brought two qualities into my life: The first, mental resilience, without which I never could have risen to the senior ranks of the Royal Air Force. The second, an appetite, indeed a love of learning and a view that whilst a day without learning may not be a day wasted, it could have been a day better spent.

I am honoured to have remained close to The Open University over the years. I am now an ambassador to the Disabled Veterans’ Scholarship Fund and proud to now have over fifty veterans studying with us to help change their lives through education.

Many may remember the 1960s series Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan used to protest ‘I am not a number, I am a man!’. Well I am a number, I am OU student AO292044 and I am proud of it!” 


Disabled Veterans Scholarship Fund

The Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund has been tailored to fully support all disabled veterans, injured in or due to service, as they transition to civilian life. It aims to provide a free OU education and a wraparound disability and careers support service.

Applications for the 2019/20 fund close on 28 June 2019. For more details, visit the DVSF web page.


Guest Author: Carly Sumner

Photograph of Carly Sumner

Carly Sumner is a Digital Content Officer in the Development Office at the OU. 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.

About Author

Our guest authors have been invited to write articles for OU News to share their views, news and activity from around The Open University.

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