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Scottish Parliament Speech: Open University (December 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I congratulate Claire Baker on lodging the motion, which takes me back to reading Jennie Lee's autobiography in about 1962 - or, rather, one of the numerous versions of it. It was a sort of dance of the seven veils; in each new edition, one got to know more and more interesting things about her life.

The later editions of it would certainly not have been published by Puffin Books, as the earliest edition was. She had a remarkably bohemian existence, which was concealed from the infants of the 1950s.

In 1969, Arthur Marwick recruited me to the Open University history department. I turned up with a bunch of people from the London office at Walton hall in what we used to call the Open University's welly-boot days - the campus was so covered in mud that people had to trample around in welly boots. People were issued with slippers when they went into the teaching rooms.

Walter Perry greeted us like Trevor Howard in a second world war movie. He said, "Some of you chaps might be wondering why you have been brought here." Of course, that brought back to us the fact that Walton hall had been one of the centres related to Bletchley, where the Enigma code was cracked and messages were decoded during the second world war.

We pioneered distance teaching in the humanities, and the organisation was brilliant. It ticked all the boxes that Antony Jay mentions in his book, "Corporation Man". The book discusses good organisation as having been set up by Jesus Christ, including federations of 12-men units in which consensual conclusions could be reached and then added together to drive a thing forward. The OU structure worked from the foundation committee all the way down, via the faculties, to the course teams and the working groups.

Getting the OU off the ground in 15 months before the first programmes went out was quite incredible. On a junior lecturer's salary, I directed the last quarter of the A100 course on industrialisation and culture, which was the first foundation course in the arts. I can even remember teaching for three weeks instead of the statutory two at the Stirling summer school, of which some tabloid - I think it was probably the News of the World - remarked, "Cool it, telly dons are told!" The industrialisation part of the course was represented by Glasgow, just before an awful lot of it was knocked flat. I remember taking students around the city, and looking up one road to see Jimmy Reid, Tony Benn and Willie Ross, and thousands more, bearing down on me. They were marching to the Broomielaw, because 1971 was the year of the upper Clyde work-in.

It did not take the OU long to get rooted in Scotland and in Scottish politics, with such people as John Mackintosh MP, Allan Macartney MEP and Gordon Brown MP - later PM - doing their bit. There is a contemporary connection, because the upper Clyde was a precedent as well as a confrontation. The sad deindustrialisation of the country that emerged is something that we need an Open University mark II to cope with.

An investigation of the way forward for economic reconstruction requires many of the techniques of the OU, which are now available in far more sophisticated forms. It is now possible to use high-definition television to create virtual laboratories in which technicians in Scotland can be trained with an eye on technical know-how from abroad. Conversely, as a quid pro quo, that technology also allows education institutions abroad to adopt innovations from Scotland and to train workers to use them.

The OU started off by being supercentralised; in fact, Walter Perry supposedly said that the regions were only "glorified post boxes". That did not last long: the regions and nations - and the feedback - were soon influencing what we wrote and how we taught. Someone also said that Open University summer schools altered the whole demography of Britain. I acknowledge that, because I met my wife Virginia in 1977 while teaching the A100 course at Norwich, on the day - as she reminded me - that Elvis died. There followed 28 years together, and our daughter, Alison, who now works for the Young Foundation. Michael Young is another figure who should not be forgotten from the founding days of the OU. I remember what Virginia said at the end of her life: "I wouldn't have missed it for the world." I can think of thousands - millions, as Claire Baker said - who would say the same.

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