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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 23 April 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Social Security and In-work Poverty, Committee Announcement, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Open University at 50


Open University at 50

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-16671, in the name of Claire Baker, on the Open University at 50. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that 23 April 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of The Open University (OU); notes that the Royal Charter that it received in 1969 required it to “promote the educational wellbeing of the community generally”; acknowledges the OU’s mission to be “open to people, places, methods and ideas”; considers that its open access policy, which requires no entrance qualifications for most courses, is as radical today as it was 50 years ago; notes what it sees as its contribution to social justice and accessible higher education across Scotland and the transformational impact that it has had on lives and communities, with more than 200,000 Scots from all backgrounds having studied with the institution, and wishes it well for the next 50 years and beyond.


I am honoured to open this evening’s debate, which celebrates 50 years of the Open University. I thank all members from across the chamber for supporting the motion, and I invite everyone to the reception tomorrow evening to further celebrate the positive impact that the Open University has had on individuals and communities across Scotland and the United Kingdom.

It is more than 55 years since Harold Wilson’s powerful speech to a Labour conference in Glasgow on the “white heat” of technology. In that speech, he talked about the expansion of higher and further education, and he expounded plans for a university of the air. He described the changing nature of industry, just as we now recognise the changing economy that we have inherited. In Government, Wilson understood that rapid change brings challenges for the workforce and society. His Government also promoted the importance of social mobility.

Today is exactly 50 years since the Open University was given its royal charter. It might have been Harold Wilson’s idea, but it was the job of Jennie Lee, the minister for the arts, to deliver it. As an MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, I am very proud to be related to Jennie Lee and welcome the fact that her contribution as a member of Parliament and in Government has increasingly been recognised, including in the celebrations for the Open University’s 50th birthday.

Delivering the Open University was not all plain sailing. It was a radical idea that challenged tradition and privilege, but Jennie Lee was determined and tenacious in her pursuit of the vision. Driven, no doubt, by her experience of growing up in Fife during a time when, for many, life was very hard and educational opportunity was limited, Jennie committed herself whole-heartedly to the project. In 1973, laying the foundation stone for the first OU library, she described it as

“a great independent university which does not insult any man or woman, whatever their background, by offering them the second best; nothing but the best is good enough.”

That is the quality that the Open University has been delivering for 50 years. It serves students across the whole of Scotland, opening up opportunities for everyone, regardless of background, current circumstances or geography. Its flexible approach to study supports the ambitions of, for example, people who have caring responsibilities, people with disabilities and those who live in remote or rural locations. There are almost 16,500 students across every part of Scotland, with over 1,800 in my region.

Entry to our universities is increasingly competitive, and, although we see some contextualisation of entrance qualifications, there are challenging minimum entry thresholds. The Open University maintains an open entry policy, meaning that no previous qualifications are required for the vast majority of courses. That is as radical a notion today as it was 50 years ago, and it challenges our perceived wisdom about a student’s potential and ability to succeed. The Open University’s approach is egalitarian: it does not matter what school the student went to, what age they are or where they live—it is open to all.

That was pretty radical. To open up the opportunities of higher education and the possibilities that come with that was an important legacy of a reforming Labour Government that is still going strong today. Three quarters of OU students are in work, two thirds earn less than £25,000 a year, 22 per cent declare a disability and almost a fifth do not have traditional university entrance qualifications. That student profile is unique and reflects the desire of all sections of our society to benefit from education, with the OU providing the means to do so.

The part-time fee grant, which exempts those on lower incomes from paying fees, is received by almost two thirds of OU undergraduates in Scotland—a proportion that has grown steadily since the grant was introduced, six years ago. It could also be argued that those who do pay fees pay a significantly lower rate than they would if they paid fees to English universities. However, given that part-time OU students are not entitled to maintenance support, we need to be mindful that the financial costs of learning do not exclude people who are looking to benefit from the opportunity. The forthcoming consultation on part-time study is, therefore, welcome.

Although, at its core, the Open University maintains its guiding principles, it has modernised. Having grown up in the 1970s, I can remember glimpses of the late-night OU programmes on the BBC—complicated equations, theories and lots of beards. The internet has revolutionised the Open University. The free learning website OpenLearn has had more than 60 million visitors, and more than 8 million people have learned with FutureLearn.

The OU has also fostered relationships with national and regional partners. In my region, Babcock International, Diageo, Fife Council, NHS Fife, SSE and Scottish Water all sponsor students, recognising that, as well as the benefit for the individual, there is a huge benefit for the company that employs them. In addition, the young participants in schools scheme enables sixth-year students to build their skills and confidence by studying at degree level in their own schools, including in many schools across my region.

At the inception of the Open University, Harold Wilson envisaged it within the context of a changing industrial landscape and the growth of new technology. We have recently had debates on the increasing need to consider the jobs of the future and the skills that people will need to succeed in them and in our future society. The Open University is as relevant in this context as it has ever been. We have a rapidly changing economy and jobs market, and we need to reinforce the critical importance of lifelong learning so that people in and out of work are prepared to adapt and thrive with the skills and knowledge that they need. I feel that there has been a contraction of opportunities and that we should take the opportunity of this significant birthday of the Open University to reaffirm the importance of lifelong learning and be clear about supporting policies that will deliver it.

I return to the beginning. The royal charter instructed the university

“to advance and disseminate learning and knowledge”,

which is an instruction that we would expect to be issued to a university. However, it also placed a responsibility on it

“to promote the educational well-being of the community generally”,

which is a much broader obligation that sets the OU on a social mission to make learning accessible to students and non-students alike. It is truly a university of the air that opens up education for all, extending opportunities for adult learners and cementing the ideas of lifelong learning and second chances. It is more than an educational institution.

In his 1963 speech, Harold Wilson said:

“I believe a properly planned university of the air could make an immeasurable contribution to the cultural life of our country, to the enrichment of our standard of living.”

The Open University has achieved that and much more. It is a pleasure to lead this evening’s debate, and I wish the Open University and all its staff and students a fantastic anniversary year. I am confident that there are many more to come.


I congratulate Claire Baker on securing this debate to mark the 50th anniversary of the Open University. It is absolutely appropriate that we, in this Parliament, should mark this momentous occasion.

In so doing, we are afforded the opportunity to commend the pioneering and pivotal role of Jennie Lee in securing the establishment of the Open University. That was against a backdrop of opposition and scepticism among many of her colleagues in the House of Commons—and, indeed, much of the civil service at the time—although she had an important ally in the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as her relative, Claire Baker, has pointed out. As the MSP for Cowdenbeath, I can say that my constituents are, rightly, very proud of Jennie Lee, who was born in Lochgelly and was the dux of her high school. She started her political career as an MP for North Lanarkshire, representing the Independent Labour Party in Scotland.

The royal charter that established the Open University, which was granted on 23 April 1969, tasked the Open University

“to promote the educational well-being of the community generally”,

and that wide remit is at the heart of the OU’s unique role. It is not just about the promotion of learning and knowledge; it is about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to realise their potential through education. It really is a university that is open to those of all ages and all backgrounds all of the time. No entrance qualifications are required, and students can study anywhere, the OU having been the first university in the United Kingdom to facilitate distance learning. That was done initially by the use of television, which I remember well, as does Claire Baker—it was interesting to puzzle out what was being shown on late-night television—as well as by means of radio and correspondence, and then through online learning.

Some 200,000 Scottish students have studied through the OU over the past 50 years, which statistic demonstrates quite simply how effective the OU has been in widening access to tertiary education. I was pleased to note that the take-up in Cowdenbeath is above the Scottish average and that nearly three quarters of those who study in my constituency are in work. The accessibility of the OU is underscored by the fact that about a fifth of its students have a disability, and it is heartening to note that gender balance is near to being achieved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. I am sure that it will be achieved in short order.

We have heard that the Open University’s financial accessibility is improved by the fact that its students can be classed as part-time students and so have access to means-tested fee grants. In addition, the university’s OpenLearn platform makes some 5 per cent of all course material available free on its website so that people can see whether a course is likely to be for them. It is good to note that it is also possible to study Open University courses locally, at Fife College.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a wonderful institution, I pay tribute to Jennie Lee and all who have worked so hard over the past five decades to make such a success of this unique educational institution. I recommend the Open University to any of my constituents who are interested in broadening their education and improving their qualifications, whether for personal development or for the development of their careers.


I join other members in congratulating Claire Baker on securing this important debate. I feel privileged to take part in what is a great opportunity to say happy birthday to one of our most unique and precious educational resources. The Open University has been pushing the case for excellence and equity in education since long before it was fashionable to do so.

There are many people across Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom who are very grateful for the opportunities that the Open University has given them. Its values are at the heart of what we are trying to do in Scottish education right now, and its mission statement and the work that it is doing are as important today as they were 50 years ago. It seems strange to be talking about an organisation that is 50 when it feels that it is still coming of age and is just as relevant, radical and disruptive to the traditional ideas of education. Particularly in rural and remote areas, including my own constituency, the Open University is still doing a huge job in pushing other organisations and institutions to think about how they do things and to develop online and distance learning.

Most of all, the Open University is a great avenue of learning for non-traditional students, such as students who have missed out on other opportunities or who have work or caring responsibilities. The Open University is a great force for levelling the educational playing field.

More than anything, the Open University challenges people to think again about what university and study mean. I have met constituents who have benefited from career changes. As education and the employment market have changed, they felt that the Open University provided them with an opportunity to avoid stagnation, make the most of their career and adjust their skills for a changing economy.

I know that many veterans who have come out of military service study at the Open University. The Open University currently has 2,000 former service personnel as students, which is greatly to its credit and lays down a marker for others.

I am particularly interested in the partnerships that the Open University has developed with schools and businesses. The issue of subject choice continues to rumble on as part of the education debate and there are big challenges across the country. I am aware of many young people in my constituency who have benefited from the opportunities that the Open University has given them to take an interest in subjects that might otherwise have been unavailable to them.

Through embracing new technology and innovative forms of learning, the Open University has kept very much up to date and continued to reinvent itself. I am too young to remember the days of having resources on the television, but I have certainly been aware of the huge expansion of resources since they were moved online.

I am confident that we will be here in another 50 years—well, I hope that I will be—talking about the success of the Open University in the next half century.


I thank Claire Baker for lodging the motion for this important parliamentary debate.

The Open University stands as one of the Labour Party’s greatest achievements, and it has close associations with Scotland. Jennie Lee was its driving force and Walter Perry was its first vice-chancellor. Although Harold Wilson later claimed that the plan for the Open University was drafted “Between church and lunch” on Easter Sunday 1963, it was, as Claire Baker said, in Glasgow in September 1963 that the idea of a university of the air was publicly launched.

The Scottish connections are strong, but we should not let that submerge the fact—I make no apology for saying this—that the idea is a distinctively Labour one in its origin, with roots going back through the rich traditions of the Labour movement, from chartism through the Clarion clubs to the Workers Educational Association, the Independent Labour Party summer schools and the left book clubs of the 1930s. It was born of an unswerving belief that education is liberation. Education was not reduced simply to serving the needs of the economy or the demands of the labour market; there was a belief in the conception of the OU’s chief architect, Michael Young, of education as not merely a stepping-stone or a sorting device, but as a good in itself that serves the general growth of humanity.

Wilson’s best biographer, Ben Pimlott, wrote:

“It was a brilliantly original and highly ambitious institution which took the ideals of social equality and equality of opportunity more seriously than any other part of the British education system.”

Tony Benn later said:

“Wilson was the real driving force behind it—he willed it; it was therefore unstoppable”.

However, it was Jennie Lee, who was the first Minister for the Arts in British history—that is another Labour achievement—who was given the task of bringing the Open University to fruition.

The 1966 Labour election manifesto, which was called “Time for Decision” because the country was at a turning point, contained a section that was headed “Educational Opportunities For All” and the pledge to

“give everyone the opportunity of study for a full degree.”

With the election won, the mandate was secured.

As Patricia Hollis wrote in “Jennie Lee: A Life”:

“It was an independent project, neither enriched nor constrained by whatever else was going on in further and higher education, superimposed on the department’s priorities, led by a junior minister with no reputation in education and with no educational support behind her, and which at best drew a studiously neutral response from her Secretary of State, who privately wished the scheme would disappear.”

Jennie Lee overcame all of that with passion and principle. She battled in Parliament—and even in the Cabinet—and she defeated vested interests and naked class prejudice outside Parliament to ensure that the university was

“open in access, uncompromising in its standards.”

The Open University has undergone a difficult few years recently. Cuts and staff casualisation have had to be resisted by its many supporters, its students, former students and the University and College Union. That is precisely because it remains a university that is worth fighting for with teaching methods that are worth defending, and which is built on an idea that is worth standing up for.

Michael Foot summed up the political life of Jennie Lee as “Passionate unity in action”. The Open University is her greatest triumph and, with the national health service, it is Labour’s most enduring legacy. We should mark today’s anniversary by refreshing the ambition and the vision that it heralded. [Applause.]

I remind those in the public gallery that they should not be clapping, cheering, jeering or doing anything at all.


I am pleased to celebrate 50 years of the Open University and I congratulate Claire Baker on bringing the debate to the chamber. The Open University is not only world renowned as an excellent educational resource but widely known for its unparalleled accessibility and inclusivity. For half a century, the OU has enabled and empowered many people who could not study at a traditional institution to pursue higher education. We must recognise the leading role of the then Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee, in establishing the OU and her determination to carry it through.

The latest figures to be published by the OU show that 37 per cent of its 210 students who live in my Cunninghame North constituency are from the most deprived 20 per cent of backgrounds and that 52 per cent are from the most deprived 40 per cent of backgrounds. To further demonstrate the OU’s rightful reputation for broadening access to education, 71 per cent of the students in my constituency are in employment, while 27 per cent have a disability and 70 per cent are female. Those figures show that, no matter what someone’s situation is—whether they have a job that they need to maintain, a dependant who they must care for or a disability that limits their mobility—with the Open University, nothing is out of reach.

Last year, 40 pupils from Ardrossan academy, Largs academy and St Matthew’s academy in my constituency participated in the OU young applicants in school scheme. That programme receives support from the Scottish funding council and allows the OU to offer fully funded places for secondary 6 pupils from local authority schools to undertake 10-credit and 30-credit modules. With subjects that range from science to engineering, business studies, information technology and computing, arts, mathematics and languages, YASS has helped more than 7,500 people across Scotland to bridge the gap between school and university, college or employment; has encouraged independent learning; and has built confidence. Beyond the qualifications, the courses equip young people with essential skills that are needed to succeed in their future career pathway.

Over the past 50 years, more than 2 million people worldwide have achieved their learning goals by studying with the Open University. Each will have their own unique story about the difference that it made to their life. I recall that a friend who was studying biology at a Russell group university found the strict schedule of lectures and seminars to be unsustainable and out of step with how he learned best. He left after just one year of study to work on an oil platform rescue boat but felt that he still had room to challenge himself academically. He completed a BSc in mathematics with the OU by fitting in modules around his duties on ship. When he returned to a life on land, his BSc opened doors to a professional career that would otherwise have been closed. That is just one example of how the OU’s flexibility can change lives.

As part of its year of celebration, the OU has released a series of photographs that showcase the early days of its teaching and its contemporary students. Photographer Chris Floyd, who shot the portraits of current students, said that he wanted

“people to look at this collection and think, ‘that person looks like me’ ... If there are people out there wondering how to further themselves, I want them to see these photos and think ‘that could be me’.”

The photos certainly tell that story. The students photographed have each used the Open University to unlock opportunity, from Tracy Thorpe, who studied modern languages while out at sea serving as crew on a yacht; to Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski, who gained a BSc in social science while serving a 16-year sentence for drug smuggling; to Zahra Alidina, who became the UK’s youngest-ever law graduate at 15 after taking a degree with the OU; and to Karis Williamson, who has congenital muscular dystrophy and is working towards her BA open honours degree.

Thanks to the Scottish National Party Government, 60 per cent of Scottish OU students received a part-time fee grant last year. That can only have made a positive difference to their education and, I hope, to their lives and careers.

Thanks to the OU and that model of support, many people in Cunninghame North and beyond are studying when deprivation, disability or a lack of time might have otherwise prevented them from taking up studies. I hope that this year of anniversary and celebration of the Open University will help to raise its profile and spread the message that further study and higher education are an option for all, no matter where people live or who they are. I again thank Claire Baker for bringing the debate to the chamber.

Quite a few members would still like to speak, so I am happy to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3 of standing orders, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Claire Baker]

Motion agreed to.

Good—I am pleased about that.


I whole-heartedly welcome the debate, which Claire Baker has brought to the chamber, because it affords us not just the opportunity to celebrate the past 50 years but the opportunity to examine the crucial role that the Open University will play in a fast-changing university sector in the future.

On Parliament’s behalf, I thank Susan Stewart—and all her officers—for how she has led the changes. Hers is a crucial role, and certainly a very challenging one. Her engagement with the Parliament and parties from all different political perspectives is second to none, and I thank her for that.

As Claire Baker rightly said, this debate is important for everyone in Scotland who wants to undertake a degree, regardless of their age, income, qualifications or geography. In an educational world that is increasingly demanding greater diversity and flexibility, the Open University could hardly be a more important part of the education system.

The debate represents an excellent opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the past 50 years and the many connections that the Open University has made in Scotland and beyond. Much has been said about origins and Harold Wilson’s speech in Glasgow about a university of the air. That was a very good speech, but it was a politician from Fife—previous speakers have rightly mentioned Jennie Lee a great deal—whose efforts played the pivotal role in its foundation, and it is right that we celebrate all that achievement.

However, Jennie Lee was not the only female politician to play an important role in the OU’s early days. After the foundation of the OU in 1969, the Heath Government—very ill-advisedly—was thinking about cutting public spending and that the OU might have to be closed down. That was unthinkable to the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher, whose arguments for its retention won the day in Cabinet—and thank goodness for that.

Nowadays, as Annabelle Ewing pointed out, the Open University reaches across Scotland. Since it obtained its royal charter, more than 200,000 students in Scotland have participated. It is a great privilege for us as members of Parliament to represent so many people who have participated and who participate so successfully in the OU.

The Open University has a very positive role to play in widening access to higher and further education for people in work, who have families or who live in some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged and most remote communities. In each case, I have been particularly impressed by the quality of teaching that the OU provides. It has been ranked in the top three universities in Scotland for student satisfaction in every year for which the national student survey has been in existence, which is some achievement.

Apart from the high academic standards, of which it should be very proud, the OU adds diversity and flexibility for many students, including, as members have mentioned, those who are more mature and part-time workers. That is a very important part of what it can achieve.

The OU has a very proud history in deliberations about what the future of education should hold. Its recent #LovePartTime campaign is an excellent example of that.

I am aware that Claire Baker will host tomorrow’s event at the Parliament. In a previous year, I had the privilege—as I think did Iain Gray—of hosting an OU reception in Parliament, which focused on the amount of time that the Open University gives to many of the new approaches in education. I am sure that tomorrow’s event will be a huge success.

I reiterate my thanks to Claire Baker. I again thank Susan Stewart and her many officers, who have done an outstanding job. I wish the OU every future success.


I, too, congratulate Claire Baker on securing the debate. This is the first time that I have heard that she is related to Jennie Lee. That is incredible.

Whenever I think of the Open University, I think of the opportunity that it has provided for those who have found access to higher education difficult. Today, a lot of Government policy is associated with widening access. In many ways, the OU has been ahead of its time—it has been successfully widening access for hundreds of thousands of students in Scotland for 50 years.

We all have our own family stories about the Open University. I will mention one member of my wider family who was an OU graduate. My late father-in-law, David, came from a family who, like many Scottish families in the 1950s and 1960s, never had anyone who had been to university. Despite being the school dux and having the brains and the qualifications to get into uni, David was expected to get a job when he left school. He became a journalist on the local paper, married and had children. A few years on, with a young family and a full-time job at the Daily Record, he set his sights on going into the BBC. David knew that, in order to make his ambitions a reality, he had to get a degree.

Of course, there were no video recorders, much less the internet, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so anyone who was working full time also had to put in a night shift, to watch Open University programmes and study. David’s family remember dad coming in from work and staying up most of the night, just to go back to work again the next day. However, on graduating from the OU, armed with his degree, David progressed through the ranks of BBC Scotland and also achieved British Academy of Film and Television Arts success, with his coverage of Pope John Paul’s visit to Glasgow.

The Open University gave David access to a fairly glittering career that might otherwise have been out of the reach of a young father from a Motherwell mining family. If we take David’s story and multiply it by thousands of working class Scots, we have a fair idea of why the OU is held in such fond regard. All universities change people’s lives, but the OU can change a whole family’s social and economic trajectory and the wider social justice landscape.

Many OU graduates had to combine study with family responsibility or full-time jobs, or looked to the OU because their background was not conducive to entering a conventional university. The OU has given access to thousands of students who have physical mobility difficulties, as many members have mentioned. It is not just a case of studying at any time; the OU allows a person to study anywhere, in their own way, and with the level of support that they need. The Open University’s contribution to the rights of people with disabilities cannot be overstated, and its contribution to those in rural communities that are miles from any other university campus is significant.

As has been mentioned, Jennie Lee, the founder of the Open University was a pioneer. She is a Scottish hero, and her legacy of pushing the boundaries of what is possible in education continues to this day. I imagine that she would be well impressed with the leadership of Susan Stewart, as am I.

The OU is at the forefront of the development and use of innovative technology such as virtual reality to facilitate learning for all, and to reach further and further out to make higher education possible for those who previously found access challenging, or for those who are simply attracted to the high quality of the OU’s offer.

The OU changed the lives of my husband’s family and, therefore, indirectly touched the lives of me and my children. It continues to spread its influence all over Scotland. Happy birthday to the OU, and here’s to another 50 years in which it will lead the way in widening access and changing lives.


I add my congratulations to Claire Baker on securing the debate. I echo the words that we have heard on the pride of the Labour movement in the Open University, and on Scotland’s pride in the role that we played through Jennie Lee and Walter Perry, and indeed the setting of Glasgow for Harold Wilson’s initial speech on the creation of the institution of the Open University.

Of course we should acknowledge and congratulate the institution and the idea of the Open University, but it is also important that we acknowledge the students across those 50 years. The institution and the idea make their study possible, but it is the students and their determination that actually make it happen.

As somebody who struggled sometimes with the self-discipline of studying at university, despite having everything laid on a plate for me and the opportunity to study full time, I am constantly astonished by those who, while working part time or sometimes full time, are able to study at the Open University, perhaps to upskill their qualifications for their job, or often just for the love of learning and the subject that they are studying. I am astonished, too, by those who have caring responsibilities or who are living with disability, and still have the self-discipline and determination to make their study work and succeed. I take my hat off to those students—200,000 Scots across the years, as we have heard. My late father-in-law—like Gillian Martin’s—was a proud Open University graduate. Those are the people who have seized the opportunity and made that vision real.

Annabelle Ewing was right. When Harold Wilson first talked of a university of the air—a virtual university without entry qualifications—the idea was derided and mocked by some, but what a powerful and transformative idea it was, and how it has developed as society has changed.

Unlike Oliver Mundell, I am certainly old enough to remember the black and white images of beards, corduroys and kipper ties that featured in the television lectures of the early days. It is important to remember that, although the Open University now works through the modern technology of the internet and virtual reality, it still works closely with the BBC, for example on the production of important programmes such as “The Blue Planet”.

Claire Baker mentioned that Jennie Lee was clear that the Open University should not be second best to traditional universities. It is worth noting one statistic in that context: some 40 per cent of Open University students study STEM subjects, and 49 per cent of those students are women. That—frankly—puts the Open University streets ahead of other institutions in the university sector.

Like Kenny Gibson, I want to acknowledge the young applicants in schools scheme. Back in 2015, there was an event in this Parliament to celebrate the success of YASS in Scotland. I was delighted that one of the speakers was Mairi Livsey, a student from Preston Lodge high school, in my constituency. Preston Lodge is one of the most active schools in the YASS programme, which gives secondary 6 pupils a chance to study at university level while at school, as Mr Gibson explained. Mairi was clear about what a useful and powerful experience that was.

The Open University comes up with new ideas all the time. Let us congratulate it on the past 50 years and look forward to the 50 years to come.


I congratulate Claire Baker on securing the debate—I congratulate her relative, too—and I wish the Open University all the best on its 50th birthday. It is a significant milestone, and I congratulate it on its work. The Labour Party has achievements that I can respect, and the Open University is certainly one of them.

In the days of the launch of the Open University, we had a 12-inch black and white television at home. It had one channel. It had been purchased to view the coronation, in 1953, and it had still not been replaced when I left home. The technology that we were using then is a world away from the technology that every one of us now has in our mobile phone to make broadcastable material—in technical terms, if not in content.

The mission of the Open University is important and underpins its academic strategy. It is

“to be open to people, places, methods and ideas”.

That is the very exemplification of inclusion and possibility: being open to opportunity and open to inspiration.

In 1972, I did a short, focused course on systems behaviour. The coursebook is still sitting on my shelf among my other academic books, although I admit that it has been a little while since I took it off the shelf and revisited it. The coursebook was of value to me then and contains many truths that still matter to me.

John F Kennedy said:

“the educated citizen ... knows that ‘knowledge is power’ more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people, that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all”.

The Open University plays an important part in helping people to learn about society, about a wide range of subjects and—perhaps more critical—about how to keep learning throughout their lives. The ability to weave the learning process into one’s working life, through the Open University, is important.

In its briefing for the debate on where it is after 50 years, the Open University highlights a couple of things that are right up to the minute. The free learning website OpenLearn, which has had 60 million visits so far, and the massive open online course—MOOC—platform are very effective ways of drawing people into the world of learning through the internet. That is important and of huge value.

There are people who have yet to find the Open University. I hope that tonight’s debate will play a part in spreading the word to people whose talents and skills are as yet undiscovered and whom the traditional methods of learning will simply not reach. The Open University has been transformational for many people and it will be transformational for many more. In Scotland, we recognise the value of education being open to all by providing free education. The Open University is important in delivering education to society as a whole.

Like Iain Gray, I struggled with the self-discipline of full-time study, although perhaps I did not struggle as hard as Iain Gray did. When I finally graduated, my mother was so relieved that she bought my girlfriend a present, because she knew that she had pushed me over the line.

Education must remain open to all, regardless of what road we take, and the Open University is a vital part of our learning infrastructure that supports that.


I will make a short and rather impromptu personal contribution to this evening’s debate to celebrate 50 years of the Open University. I will focus, in particular, on accessibility and the “open to all” ethos.

The Open University claims to have 16,500 students in Scotland, and for more than a decade I have been one of them. I flirted with the idea of studying with the OU for several years before I committed to doing so. I had a number of questions—or reasons not to pick up the phone—in my mind. Could I afford it? I discovered that I could, because the courses are extraordinarily good value and there are loads of grants and support schemes that one can avail oneself of. Would I need to pre-qualify for the courses that I wanted to do? In general, the answer was no, because the OU has an open-entry policy, which means that no entrance qualifications are required for the vast majority of courses. Did I have the time, given that, in those days, I had a full-time legal job and then a young family? It turned out that I did, because the whole emphasis is on flexibility and allowing people to study wherever and whenever it suits them.

The other question that existed deep down in my mind was whether what the OU provided would be any good. Would the materials and the teaching be up to scratch? The answer to that was an emphatic “Yes”. The OU is the fourth university that I have studied at—to be fair, I studied at the other three some considerable time ago—and the materials and the calibre of the teaching staff are second to none.

I signed up to study, sometimes because I was just interested in the topic, sometimes to further my career and sometimes for both reasons. In my time with the OU, I have studied, among other things, European history from 1400 to 1900, upper intermediate French, the weather, a masters in business administration and, now, crime and justice. As long as I do not do anything stupid in the next couple of months—if I get through the dissertation and final exam—that will give me another honours degree.

During that time, I have shared residentials with like-minded students of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds in places such as the University of Warwick, Caen in northern France and Brussels, as well as attending day schools at various universities. I have learned a huge amount and have achieved qualifications that have helped me here and in my previous career and that will undoubtedly help me in the future. Above all, I have had great fun doing it.

I wanted to be here to celebrate 50 years of the Open University and to wish it all the best for the next 50 years. I also wanted to thank the institution for all that it has done for me and to encourage anyone who is watching the debate, who might be thinking about studying for their career, for future opportunities or just for the sheer joy of learning, to pick up the phone or go on the OU’s website to see what is on offer. They will not regret it.


First, many thanks to Claire Baker for lodging the motion and allowing us the opportunity to reflect on the Open University’s many achievements in its first 50 years. The number of speakers this evening and the passionate contributions that they have made illustrate very well the high value that members attach to the Open University. Tonight is a great opportunity for us all to join together to wish the Open University a happy 50th birthday. Of course, 1969 is a vintage year and it was a tremendous year in which to be born—I can speak from personal experience. I was delighted that Oliver Mundell said that at the age of 50 it is still possible to be coming of age and be radical and disruptive. I very much took comfort from his comments.

The university’s first chancellor, Geoffrey Crowther, described the purpose of the Open University to be

“open, first, as to people … open as to places … open as to methods … and ... open, finally, to ideas”.

That statement continues to define what sets the Open University apart. The growth of the university has been incredible; 25,000 places were available to students in its first year in 1971, when it started taking enrolments. Since then, the OU has welcomed over 2 million students across 157 countries. That is a phenomenal footprint across the globe in terms of promoting higher education. As one member mentioned, 16,000 Scots enrolled in 2017-18 alone and 86 per cent of those who enrolled went on to positive destinations thereafter.

Many members have spoken about students and referred to stories from their own lives or their constituencies. Last year, I had the privilege of attending the graduation ceremony of Iain Stephen, a student from Elgin who overcame the challenges of multiple disabilities to achieve a master’s degree in science. Hearing from his friends, family and fellow students that day, I was left in absolutely no doubt about the scale of his achievements and the importance of the OU in supporting him along his student journey. The director of the OU in Scotland, the formidable and impressive Susan Stewart, whom many members have paid tribute to this evening, was there in Elgin with her team to ensure that Iain Stephen was able to have a graduation ceremony.

What we see today is a clear example of what makes this Government, this Parliament and Scotland as a whole proud of our universities. As many members have said, the role of universities has never been more important. They play such a huge role in ensuring that we have a highly educated and skilled population that is able to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing economy, which is vital for our country’s future prosperity and our wellbeing. That is why improving education and closing the attainment gap are our top priorities. A good education is important for its own sake, as Richard Leonard said. It also contributes to the health, happiness and fulfilment of both the individual and wider society.

It is clear from the contributions that we have heard from across the chamber that the OU embraces those ambitions and shares a common purpose with this Parliament and Government. The commission on widening access was clear that all parts of the education system would have to work together to achieve the ambitious target of ensuring that, by 2030, 20 per cent of students entering university come from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds. Social justice and equality of opportunity are at the heart of everything that the OU does and widening access to higher education is the ambition on which it was founded. It has indeed blazed a trail as far as widening access is concerned; it has been ahead of the game, as Gillian Martin said. Indeed, around a fifth of its undergraduate entrants in Scotland join the OU without typical higher education entrance qualifications, with a similar proportion living in the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland.

The OU’s open admissions policy, flexible delivery, bridging programmes with schools, articulation agreements with colleges and geographical reach demonstrate its commitment to the widening access agenda.

The commission on widening access also recognised that further work was required to support equal access for other groups of learners. Therefore, we should commend the OU on its high proportion of undergraduate entrants with disabilities and the wide range of support services and facilities it has offered to those students. These examples provide clear evidence that the OU is getting something very right in its uniquely flexible approach to learning and its commitment to delivering education for all.

As Claire Baker said, universities operate in a globally competitive marketplace. The global shift to an economy that is increasingly based on knowledge and skills makes the contribution of our universities pivotal to the country’s future success. We all know that Scotland is an open, welcoming and inclusive country. We need to ensure that our universities can continue to compete globally, which is why it is important that more than 7,000 international students are directly studying with the Open University. The Open University’s long-standing partnership with the BBC and its development of open educational resources, which many members have referred to, have allowed it to reach a global audience. OpenLearn, which is the OU’s free learning resource website, has had more than 58 million visits since it launched in 2006.

In that global context, the Government is fully aware of the value of STEM learning to Scotland’s intellectual and economic future and we recognise that STEM subjects are a key tool in solving many of the big issues facing the planet. Therefore, like Iain Gray, I welcome the fact that more than 40 per cent of the OU’s students in Scotland are studying STEM subjects. Iain Gray made the important point that a high proportion of those students are female.

Another of the Open University’s strengths lies in its delivery of high-quality and flexible work-based learning, which again is imperative if we are to have future growth in the Scottish economy. We all know about the expansion of graduate apprenticeships, which provide more opportunities for people to combine an academic degree with learning in the workplace. Likewise, the OU has adapted to employer needs by incorporating its open educational resources in the workplace and collaborating with Skills Development Scotland to offer graduate apprenticeships in cybersecurity, information technology, business management and software development. The Open University recognises the value of allowing students to work and learn at the same time, and around three quarters of its students in Scotland are in full-time or part-time employment.

I could highlight many other areas where the Open University plays an important role in the higher education agendas in this century but, as we are running out of time, I should finish by saying that Claire Baker reminded us of the importance of renowned Scottish MP Jennie Lee, who was the daughter of a coal miner from Fife and a student of the University of Edinburgh. Her vision and tenacity were crucial to establishing the Open University, from which millions have benefited over the past 50 years. As the minister, I am confident that the institution will continue to build on Jennie Lee’s legacy and will match her determination to provide education to future generations from all backgrounds who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential. On behalf of the Scottish Parliament, I thank the Open University and all the students, tutors and staff for their considerable contributions to our country’s growth and wellbeing, and I wish them well in this year’s celebrations and in their continuing endeavours.

Meeting closed at 18:02.