The Open University has roots in the traditions of part-time education for adults, developed from the eighteenth century, in correspondence courses, associated with the rapid industrialisation of the nineteenth century, in the university extension initiatives which started in the 1870s and in sandwich courses, summer schools, radio and television broadcasts—for which there were precedents in the twentieth century.
However, its more immediate origins lie in the 1960s when it was not part of a national plan, as other new universities of the 1960s were.
Rather, it came about due to the energy of a few people in positions of authority. They often used the rhetoric of the Cold War to advance their ideas.
Before he became Leader of the Labour Party in 1963 Harold Wilson made a number of speaking tours of the USA. He was sponsored by a wealthy Democrat entrepreneur, William Benton, who had made his money in radio advertising and who maintained an interest in communication and education.
This was a period when the Cold War was being waged on many fronts. Benton sought to enlighten citizens against communism by connecting higher education, commerce and high culture. He owned both Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, in 1952 he started publishing the 54 volumes of the Great Books of the Western World series and he also offered gifts and connections to Wilson.
On one occasion he held a dinner in London where he introduced Wilson to Geoffrey Crowther, then Vice Chair of the Editorial Board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a governor of the London School of Economics. Crowther became the first Chancellor of the OU.
Benton argued that 'the cold war between the open and closed societies is likely to be won in the world's classrooms, libraries, and college and university laboratories' and that to bar entry to higher education on grounds of poverty 'stands athwart the American Dream'.
The OU adopted an open access policy. The first Vice-Chancellor of the OU, Walter Perry, claimed that Benton was one of the men whose vision of education for all, through correspondence teaching and the use of the mass media, contributed to the decision to found the university. Benton was a vice president of the University of Chicago, which awarded Wilson his first honorary degree, and he was closely associated with a radio series called the University of the Air.
When, in 1963, Wilson launched his idea for a University of the Air, at a meeting in Glasgow and about three weeks later at the Labour Party conference, he placed his notion within a speech about the 'white heat of technological revolution'.
In this he echoed a speech made a year earlier by President Kennedy which committed the USA to putting a man on the moon during the 1960s. Both leaders argued that social progress and peaceful developments could be achieved by investment in research, particularly in science and technology.
In the USSR, which had demonstrated its technological superiority by launching Sputnik 1 in 1957, sixty per cent of Soviet engineers obtained their degrees in part from distance teaching. The Russian system also impressed William Benton who wrote ‘I am greatly interested in the Soviet plans for the use of television in the field of higher education.’
Within a few months of launching his idea for a University of the Air Wilson became Prime Minister. He appointed a Minister to see through his plans and she in turn appointed an advisory committee.
This reported and a further committee was appointed to plan the OU in more detail. This was dissolved when OU’s first Council was created in 1969.
Only one person sat on all of these three bodies, Norman MacKenzie. Like Benton he had worked in radio propaganda during the war and was very interested in the uses of technology for education, expression and communication. During the Cold War he worked, clandestinely, for MI6 in Eastern Europe.
During the 1970s the OU continued to be seen as part of the effort to spread Western values. It was funded to support similar ‘open universities’ in Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela and a number of other countries.
The OU was not founded simply to be a crude weapon in the Cold War. However, this element of its make up helps to explain why what Wilson himself said was an 'inchoate idea' in 1963 resulted in a university with a Royal Charter by 1969.
The OU was both part of the post-war welfare settlement and also framed by the Cold War.