Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Jennie Lee had more influence on UK Higher Education that anyone dead or alive

The key players behind the creation of The UK Open University were UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the first ever Minister for the Arts Jennie Lee. The vision and detail was created by Jennie Lee who can be said to have more direct influence on UK Higher Education than anyone dead or alive, opening up Degrees for hundreds of thousands who would other wise have been denied the opportunity.

The 1965 Labour government are credited with founding The Open University, a revolutionary idea to make higher education accessible to a wider population. But it was Jennie Lee (1954-70), daughter of a miner, was a Scottish politician who was appointed as the first Minister for the Arts and oversaw the establishment of the university, played a significant role. Lee provided the political drive and determination to ensure the project’s success, navigating through skepticism and opposition

White Paper

Lee and Wilson envisioned a university of the air, an institution that would utilise television and radio broadcasts to provide education to those who were unable to attend traditional universities due to various constraints like work, family, or distance. The idea was to make higher education accessible to all, irrespective of background or circumstances, reflecting a broader commitment to social justice and educational opportunity.

Lee’s white paper, presented in 1966, laid out the vision and operational plan for what would become The Open University. It outlined plans for the university which would deliver courses by correspondence and through the use of technology, such as television and radio, to broadcast its courses, thus linking it to the technological revolution of the time. The paper was part of a broader initiative to modernize British society, enhance the competitiveness of the economy, and promote greater equality of opportunity and social mobility. It was a pioneering effort to expand higher education beyond traditional boundaries and to utilize contemporary media in a way that had not been done before in the realm of education.

The Open University admitted its first students In 1971 and has since become a respected and innovative institution, offering a wide range of courses and degrees to students in the UK and around the world. It remains a significant part of Harold Wilson’s legacy and a testament to his government’s commitment to expanding educational opportunities.


Jennie Lee faced widespread skepticism and opposition from various quarters in her pursuit to establish The Open University. The idea of a ‘University of the Air’ that would reach out to those previously denied the opportunity to study was met with resistance. Skepticism and opposition came from within the Labour Party, including senior officials in the Department of Education and Science (DES), her departmental boss Anthony Crosland, the Treasury, ministerial colleagues like Richard Crossman, and commercial broadcasters. Despite the challenges, The Open University was realised thanks to Lee’s unwavering determination, the support of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and initially modest anticipated costs. The true, much higher costs only became apparent later, by which time the project had gained too much momentum to be discontinuedThe traditional universities were skeptical, even opposed to the idea of The Open University. They had concerns about the quality of education that could be delivered through distance learning and the use of media like television and radio. There was apprehension that an open admissions policy could dilute academic standards. Moreover, traditional institutions saw the establishment of a new university that challenged conventional norms as a threat to their established educational models and possibly their funding and enrolment. However, The Open University proved its merit over time by achieving high academic standards and gaining a solid reputation, which helped to alleviate many of these concerns.


The Open University is still a positive force in Higher Education but has some serious setbacks, including a £20 million failed investment in trying to enter the US and Futurelearn, a MOOC company that failed to realise its initial promise, being held back by traditional BBC appointments with little business, online technology or educational experience.


Numerous open universities around the world were influenced by the model of The Open University in the UK. The success of this institution demonstrated that distance learning could be both reputable and accessible, leading to the establishment of similar universities globally. Some examples include:

  • The Open University of Israel, 1974.

  • FernUniversit√§t in Hagen, Germany, 1974.

  • The Open University of the Netherlands, 1984.

  • Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India, 1985.

  • The Open University of China, 1979.

  • Athabasca University in Canada, 1970, which shifted to an open university model following the UK's example.

  • Universidad Nacional de Educaci√≥n a Distancia (UNED) in Spain, 1972.

These institutions adopted the philosophy of open admission, flexible distance learning, and the use of technology to provide education to those who otherwise might not have access to it. They have played a significant role in expanding higher education and continue to impact lifelong learning across the globe. We could surely do this again. No massive campus costs with low occupancy rate buildings, all online, no travel to be in line with climate change demands and an exemplar once more for the rest of the world. Even better, base it in the North, that has long sustained a brilliant set of Universities.


Wilson and Lee

Weinbren, D., 2015. The open university: A history. In The Open University. Manchester University Press.

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