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“It can change your life”: Pioneer student Robin shares his OU memories

When The Open University first opened its doors fifty years ago, Robin Harbour became one of the very first students. Armed with a passion for science but lacking the traditional qualifications needed, he started a life-changing OU journey which he would finish twenty years later.

We caught up with Robin, 71, to hear about the earliest days of the OU…

“I was never any good at maths and was pushed very much into languages while at school,” says Robin. “I always had a general interest in science, but was rather put off by the maths qualifications you needed to get into science courses. The OU did not have that particular barrier.”

After learning that The Open University was welcoming its first students, Robin began the S100 Science Foundation course in 1971, continuing his work as a librarian while he studied.

The early days

“I have very fond memories of my OU courses, particularly Biological Bases of Behaviour,” says Robin. “You were sent home experiment kits through the post and they included everything from rocks to analogue computers.”

“The basic geology course also had some interesting moments. The first iteration underestimated the length of some of the field trips. We had to complete one expedition at a jog, followed by a bus trip down the M6 with the tutor pointing out exposures of Millstone Grit out of the window as we sped by. It must have been one of the world’s fastest geology lessons!”

“Serendipity rather than planned progress”

Looking back on his studies in the 1970s, Robin notes how challenging it was to juggle studies with work and family life. “It all comes down to priorities,” he says. Though he had intended to complete his degree to Honours level, he decided to take a break from his studies once he had completed the minimum requirements needed.

“My life was progressing in other ways. I had just got married and it seemed sensible to take a break until things settled down. I was thinking in terms of a year or two, not the 20 odd years that became a reality! However, after marriage came children and progression into a more demanding job and I just never got round to finishing my degree.”

In the early 1990s, Robin was unexpectedly made redundant and decided it was time to finish what he had started.

“I must admit I was a bit surprised that the OU accepted me back to do honours courses, but it worked well for me. Serendipity rather than a planned progress! Sometimes I think I was lucky, sometimes think I made my own luck. Maybe a bit of both.”

A new path

Not long after completing his BSc (Hons) Open degree., Robin was able to put his new qualification into practice by joining the new Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) as a methodologist assessing the quality of science in medical evidence. He went onto become a recognised methodological expert and ran courses around the world, from Washington DC to Singapore. Robin continued working within this field for over 20 years until his retirement in 2014.

“None of this later part of my life would have been possible without my OU degrees. They changed my way of thinking.”

Now 71 years old, Robin still maintains an interest in all things scientific and spends his time volunteering within his local community. “The OU is far from an easy option,” he says, advising future students to ‘pick courses that interest you, not things you feel you should do’.

“Also,” he adds, “don’t underestimate how much The Open University can change your life.”


Byline: Carly Sumner

Photograph of Carly Sumner
Carly Sumner, Digital Content Officer, The Open University.

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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