Open University, the university that offers instruction to students largely at a distance. Great Britain established an autonomous Open University in April 1969. Its object, as defined in its Royal Charter, was—and still is—“the advancement and dissemination of teaching and research by a diversity of means”. These included radio and television programmes, packaged course materials, correspondence tuition, and the provision of computer facilities.
Controversial in its origins, the Open University was highly successful in its development and impact. The initial conception of a “University of the Air”, proposed by the Labour leader Harold Wilson in a speech in Glasgow in September 1963, had focused on the use of television for limited teaching purposes, already carried out in the United States and the then Soviet Union. This was broadened significantly, however, following his appointment of Jennie Lee, a dynamic and determined minister for the arts, and the guidance given her by an influential planning committee which devised a degree plan. This was based on credit units, to be accumulated by students in their own time and at their own pace. The emphasis was on independent learning.
No initial educational qualifications were required on entry, but the new institution, offering a wide range of courses, was to be treated and judged as a quality institution. An individual tuition system was evolved, regional study centres were set up, and summer schools were arranged.
As the first Chancellor, Geoffrey Crowther, stated, the university, based in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, was open to methods and ideas as well as to students, the first 24,000 of whom started their degree courses, prepared by course teams, in January 1971. The first vice-chancellor, Walter Perry, who skillfully guided the university until his retirement in 1981, ensured that it was built on firm academic foundations, and his successor, John Horlock, who served until 1990, greatly expanded its role to encompass a cluster of self-financing continuing education courses above and below degree standard. There was a move into business education, and research flourished. It was during his vice-chancellorship that the 100,000th-degree student graduated. In 2006 the university had about 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates. Approximately 25,000 of the university’s total learners are from outside the United Kingdom.
In 1993 the funding of the university was radically changed. Previously financed separately by the Department of Education, it is now funded like other universities within the mainstream as part of a national system. In December 2006 the Open University ended its broadcasting of course material on television, replacing this delivery method with DVDs and podcasts. By now the concept and title of the Open University have become familiar in all parts of the world, with institutions bearing that name in countries as far apart as China, India, the Netherlands, and Portugal.