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Author: Dan Weinbren

Asa Briggs and new maps of learning

Updated Tuesday, 3rd January 2017
Asa Briggs' interest in how to support learning influenced his work at two universities.

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Higher Education enjoyed a huge expansion during the 1960s with new universities and polytechnics being opened and many older universities expanding their numbers. One man, Asa Briggs, played significant roles at the first of the new universities of the decade, the University of Sussex located just outside Brighton, which opened in 1961, and the last university to open in that decade, The Open University, based in Milton Keynes, which opened in 1969.

After having been appointed as a Professor at Sussex Briggs rose to become the CEO, the Vice-Chancellor, between 1967 and 1976. Briggs was also a member of the Planning Committee of The Open University, 1967-69, chairing that body’s working group on students and curriculum. He went on to become the Chancellor of The Open University between 1978 and 1994 and he also taught at The Open University. Lord Briggs was awarded a Fellowship of the Open University in 1999 and had buildings named in his honour at both institutions.

The idea of a university in Brighton had been discussed in the town for almost half a century before, in 1958, Brighton Corporation’s scheme for a university was approved. It received a Royal Charter and sought to cater to the ‘bulge’ in demand due to the large number of babies born in 1947 who had gone on to study ‘A’ Levels. Briggs brought fresh ideas about the curriculum and teaching, building on his experiences of holding senior posts at other universities and on his membership of the overarching funding body, the University Grants Committee. He developed a ‘map of learning’ in which a variety of strands of knowledge were connected through multidisciplinary schools. Students were not numbers to be taught but individuals engaged in their own learning. Subsequently, Briggs reflected on his time as Vice-Chancellor. Although students had demonstrated against the honorary doctorate awarded to Harold Wilson, thrown red paint at a US Embassy official and shouted down a visiting professor, Briggs said that he never generalised about ‘the young’ but ‘always tried to work closely with them as individuals’.

By contrast with the long-held desire for Brighton to get a university, the foundation of a national, widely accessible ‘university of the air’, designed to support part-time learners principally through correspondence and broadcasting, was announced only in 1963 by Labour leader Harold Wilson. It was not party policy and a White Paper on the plans for a university of the air were only published in 1966, three years before The Open University opened. There was no support from a local council; indeed the town of Milton Keynes did not exist and there was opposition from within Westminster, Whitehall, the established universities and the press. Briggs was one of the handful of people who ensured the creation and survival of The Open University.

Associated with the Labour government, it opened to students in the year the Conservatives were elected. Although the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer had condemned it as ‘blithering nonsense’ the Education Secretary recognised that it was cost efficient, provided opportunities for aspirational voters and was, as one newspaper later reported, full of ‘Short-haired students keen to work’.

Here too Briggs focused on innovative teaching and in particular his interest in broadcasting. He had taken part in ‘The Fifty-One Society’, a series of radio programmes broadcast between 1951 and 1962 which helped harness the power of broadcasting to the values of liberal education. Between 1961 and 1995 he wrote the five-volume history of British broadcasting. Sussex deployed closed-circuit television for classroom observation in teacher training, to record and play back lectures and to display teaching materials. The university also had audio-visual units, language laboratories and some programmed learning. Technology, Briggs felt, should be employed to enable collaborative learning and he promoted learning methods associated with this idea both at Sussex and The Open University.

Interviewed for an Open University broadcast in 1972 he emphasised that he was proud of the radical changes which had been introduced at Sussex:


PROFESSOR ASA BRIGGS: In a new university, 10 years ago, many of the fundamental questions were being asked. You were forced to ask them. We certainly asked them at Sussex in 1961. What kind of a university should you produce in the 20th century? What is the changing relationship between the university and the community? Should you concentrate on one age group? Should you alter the curriculum?


What is the relationship between general education and specialist education? These were the questions that we asked. I don't think they had been asked very profoundly in England before, and I don't think all universities in England ask them now. But one of the advantages of being a new university, as the Open University itself realises of course, is that you are forced into asking questions, the answers to which people usually take for granted in existing institutions.


INTERVIEWER: But the answers you came up with, the expansion of universities at that stage, seemed to me in many ways-- yes, you took in many more numbers-- but the characteristics which you've developed are very close to those of other universities. You may have asked the questions, but the answers may have been rather conventional.


PROFESSOR ASA BRIGGS: No, I don't think I would really agree with that either. I think that we never envisaged our own role in my own university, for example, of simply increasing numbers. And indeed over the last 10 years, numbers have increased in the older universities far more of course than they've increased in all the new ones put together. What we did ask were questions about the nature of university organisation and the curriculum.


And for example, we made the most radical break with most universities by getting rid of departments altogether, which is a fundamental break, and substituting for departments schools of study. We got rid of single subject honours degrees. There are no single subject honours degrees. And we got the idea of degrees rather like Open university degrees, in this sense, with building blocks with some major courses and with related courses. And like you, we were forced to ask some very interesting questions about what do you do with people in the first year of a university.

In 1979, when he was formally inaugurated as the Chancellor of the Open University (a largely honorary, ambassadorial position) he recalled that, unlike other universities the OU had a legal agreement with the BBC and together the two institutions had made over 5,000 radio and television programmes. He also noted that students had access to print materials and the face-to-face and telephone tuition and that the university’s openness carries with it a ‘unique vulnerability’.

Briggs had himself taught using television while at the OU. The OU Planning Committee had insisted that television ‘should not be wasted in the straightforward visualisation of lectures’ and Briggs’ television programme for an arts first level, foundation course, used film and music in imaginative ways. Leeds: A Study in Civic Pride is far more than a dry lecture to camera, or a travelogue. This is history which contextualises the level at which people lived their lives within broader regional, national and international perspectives so that those new to studying and with only one opportunity to watch the programme (this is before video playback machines were commonplace) could get a sense of why history is important and relevant to them and how it can be created by ordinary learners everywhere. This was an opportunity to watch an expert (Briggs had written many books about Victorian society) enthusing about his subject, making support for learning central, and providing learners with opportunities to construct their own understandings, to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers of education. There was also a personal touch. When he introduced footage of a flax spinning mill he noted that the wealthy owner provided baths of his workforce. By contrast, Briggs tells viewers that his Leeds-based grandfather used to dive in the local canal to cool off at the end of a working day.

When he was inaugurated as Chancellor he recalled his teaching with the OU:


ASA BRIGGS: I've gained very great pleasure, myself, from participating from the start in the making and presenting of Open University programmes, and I hope that whatever the constraints applied to chancellors very necessary constraints in my view, speaking as an ex-vice chancellor-- my own opportunities will remain open in this particular field.


I'm told that in cooperation with the BBC, over 5,000 programmes in radio and television have been broadcast since 1971. I know, too, however, that the university has never rested content with broadcasting methods alone. It has set out to combine, as Lord Crowther hoped that it would combine, every kind of approach to learning, including printed and published materials, never obsolete, and personal tuition.


The Open University will always have to take account of change, local change and global change, and its very openness will carry with it a unique vulnerability. I will do my best as chancellor to see it through new phases of its history.

Through demonstrating a continuing engagement with innovative pedagogy which placed the support of learning and learners at its heart, Asa Briggs helped the University of Sussex and The Open University to thrive.

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