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Open University history

July 1, 2011
English: Margaret Thatcher, former UK PM. Fran...

English: Margaret Thatcher, former UK PM. Français : Margaret Thatcher 日本語: 「鉄の女」サッチャー英首相 Nederlands: Margaret Thatcher Svenska: Margaret Thatcher som oppositionsledare 1975 Русский: Маргарет Тэтчер, бывшая премьер-министр Великобритании (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlikely bedfellows – Margaret Thatcher and Jennie Lee

Full marks to Rachel Garnham and the Open University team which is encouraging staff and student memories to help create an interactive online history for its 40th anniversary.

It’s another innovation from an organisation built on innovation. I’m a big fan – not least of the OU’s collaborations with various radio, television and film co-productions.  It has also gone international offering distance learning and online degrees in many countries. This is a great way of taking knowledge to the widest audience – which is what it started doing in 1971.

But its birth was attended by two of the unlikeliest midwives.

In the red corner was  Jennie Lee (widow of Aneurin Bevan) given the job by Harold Wilson to get the “university of the air” up and running.

In the blue corner was Margaret Thatcher, education minister in the Conservative  government newly elected in 1970.  Many of her colleagues viewed the OU as a Socialist behemoth and wanted to strangle it at  birth  but she argued robustly in Cabinet for its retention, albeit with a much reduced budget.

Part of this was due to pragmatism – it was relatively inexpensive by conventional university standards and getting rid of it could have rebounded politically.

But there was a much deeper affinity shared by both the Left and Right. Both embraced a strong belief in widening access and opportunities to study – a second chance for many, with courses tailored to their needs.

Samuel Smiles embodied this in Self Help – for which Sir Keith Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s political mentor,  wrote the preface to the 1987 edition.  Its values were fundamental to Conservative philosophy and that of a grocer’s daughter from Grantham.  She went on to study at Oxford but retained a disdain for the largely-male academic and professional elites whom she regularly excoriated in power.

Oxford’s dons retaliated by refusing her an honorary degree.  MK Dons  (I reckon the  OU has better claim to this title ahead of the arrival of the breakaway Wimbledon FC team in Milton Keynes) no doubt shared the increasing public antipathy towards Mrs Thatcher even though she was the university’s saviour.

Jennie Lee was a mineworker’s daughter from Fife who benefitted from Carnegie Trust funding to study at Edinburgh.  Her papers are in the OU archive.

I don’t know if the two midwives discussed their respective roles.  Any common ground would certainly have disappeared in the 1980s in the wake of the devastation wreaked by the Thatcher government among mining and steel communities across the UK.

I’m also not sure what Bevan would have made of it, particularly as the chief would-be OU strangler was chancellor Iain MacLeod,  one of the few  Conservatives who could match him as a Commons debater.

One person has a unique perspective – the delightful Oscar-nominated make-up designer Ann Buchanan who did party pieces for Bevan on his visits to Glasgow and later coiffed Mrs T.

Finally, let’s not forget the OU’s own party prowess – it offers students a variety of choices for their graduation ceremony.  My good pal, whisky entrepreneur  Bill Mackintosh chose Versailles for his.  Now that’s really first class…….

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