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Open University: one of the great British successes

Open University is one of Europe’s largest and leading higher educational institutions, with more than 200,000 students. It's also considered one of the great Britain's achievements in the sphere of education. What makes Open University which was founded in 1969 so unique, even compared to other, older and revered institutions like Oxford and Cambridge?

University of the air

The majority of the OU's undergraduate students in the UK study off-campus, and many of its courses can also be studied anywhere in the world. It offers a lot of opportunities for distance learning, including written and audio study materials, an online study portal, a dedicated tutor, student forums, and learning events. Until 2006, its courses were broadcasted by the BBC. For more than 50 years, the OU, together with the BBC, has been co-producing up to 25 TV and radio series every year.

Although today online and distance learning seem to be the most natural thing in the world, initially, the idea of a university that uses television, radio and postal service to teach degree-level courses seemed peculiar and outlandish. Back in the day, it was described as the 'university of the air' and 'blithering nonsense'.

This idea was first suggested as far back as 1962, by British sociologist, social activist and politician Michael Young who coined the term "meritocracy". It finally took shape thanks to the then education secretary Jennie Lee, the widow of Aneurin "Nye" Bevan, a Welsh Labour Party politician famous for his significant role in creating The National Health Service (NHS), healthcare services that are free for all at the point of delivery (before NHS, patients were generally required to pay for their health care).

The OU was conceived as an alternative route to higher education for those who for some reason did not get the chance to study a degree at a campus university. It was granted a royal charter on 23 April 1969 and was initially based at Alexandra Palace (north London), 'the birthplace of television', where BBC studious and editing facilities had previously been situated. The technical difficulties of using television to broadcast teaching programmes were overcome thanks to the efforts of James Redmond, the then Assistant Director of Engineering at the BBC, who had gained most of his engineering qualifications at night school and was an enthusiastic supporter of the project.

By the mid-2000s since its creation, the OU was in the top 5 British universities for teaching quality and had about 600,000 graduates with qualifications. Many people who were robbed of their degrees when they were young have the OU to thank for their second chance.

You can explore the latest free OU educational content by subject (from business & law to science & technology), produced in partnership with the BBC, here.

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