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The Open University will be celebrating its 40th anniversary, marking a significant milestone for the UK’s first university dedicated to open and distance learning

On April 23, The Open University will be celebrating its 40th anniversary, marking a significant milestone for the UK’s first university dedicated to open and distance learning.

The Open University is now the UK’s largest university, teaching almost 200,000 students each year, and since its establishment in 1969 it has helped over 2 million students further career development or fulfil life long ambitions of learning.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brenda Gourley, says: “The Open University has turned an educational system devised in another age into a tool of the knowledge society, and used open and distance education to make the world a better place: abandoning entry criteria and using technology has enabled us to provide education to millions of people who might otherwise be condemned to poverty and hardship. This is an extraordinary record of which the UK should be proud. It has also been achieved while becoming a first-rate university in any terms, standing proudly among its more traditional peers and partners.

“The Open University has not only put social justice at the very heart of what it seeks to do – it is the very stuff of its mission. It has played a real part in shaping the future society in Britain and elsewhere. It has in the process helped many people to realise their dreams.”

Today The Open University continues to lead the way in learning technology. In 2008 The Open University became the first university to offer free downloadable course material via iTunesU and today over 50,000 OU tracks are downloaded from iTunesU each week.

23 April 1969 saw the birth of The Open University but its intellectual roots go back much further. In 1926 the educationalist and historian J C Stobart wrote a memo on a ‘wireless university’, while working for the BBC. By the early sixties many different proposals were being debated such as a 'teleuniversity', which would combine broadcast lectures with correspondence texts and visits to conventional universities – a genuinely 'multi-media' concept.

In1963 Harold Wilson stated in a speech in Glasgow: “Today I want to outline new proposals on which we are working, a dynamic programme providing facilities for home study to university and higher standards.” When Labour won the election in 1964, Harold Wilson appointed Jennie Lee and asked her to take on the ‘University of the Air’ project, moving her to the Department of Education and Science.

This project met with severe hostility and scepticism, but thousands rushed to register. Forty years on, The Open University is consistently in the top three of the National Students Survey of Student Satisfaction, had 18 of 25 subjects classed as excellent in the last UK Quality Assurance Agency subject review, and in the recent UK universities Research Assessment Exercise rose 23 places in the UK research league table, with 14% of its research described as ‘world leading’ and more than 50% described as ‘internationally excellent’. No scepticism now and no hostility either!

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Editor’s notes
Media contact: Gemma Bessant, on 01908 655596, or Rachel James on 01908 653343,

The Vice-Chancellor is available for interview.

Resources for the media:

The Open University continuing to lead the education revolution
• In 2008, the OU was the first UK University to join iTunesU, the area of Apple’s iTunes store that offers downloadable educational content.
• Also in 2008, the OU launched its own online video community site called ‘ouView in YouTube’
• A wide range of free online courses is also available from OpenLearn, the OU’s award-winning open educational resource website.
The Open University promoting opportunity and social justice
• In 2007/8, 42,000 OU students received financial support towards their course fees; 15.5% of the OU’s students were from disadvantaged communities.
• The Openings programme provides short, introductory courses designed for people with no prior educational experience who need to build confidence and skills. In 2007/08 almost 16,500 students registered on Openings courses.
The Open University’s Global reach
• In India, Turkey and China, universities based on The Open University’s model each have more than one million students. Most countries now have their own open learning provision.
• More than 21,000 Open University students study outside the UK.
• The launch of the Russian-language BA in Business Studies is set to attract thousands more to join the 15,290 people already studying for OU awards across Russia’s eight time zones.
• 24,000 students are registered on Arab Open University programmes leading to an Open University validated degree.
• The Open University is bringing increased educational opportunity to some of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. More than 500,000 primary school teachers in nine African countries are benefiting from OU audio and texts materials made freely available to them through the TESSA (Teacher Education in Sub-Sahara Africa) project.
The Open University’s value to the UK economy
• Graduates of The Open University are amongst the most employable in the UK, according to data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. More than 80% are in employment six months after graduating
• More than 75% of the FTSE top 100 companies have sponsored their staff to take Open University courses.

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