Wilson’s ‘Proudest Achievement’: Jennie Lee and the Open University

Harold Wilson claimed the idea for the ‘University of the Air’ came to him on a flight back to Britain after a lecturing tour of Chicago University in 1963.

Wilson observed their modern degree system that featured novel teaching methods such as postal correspondence, television lectures, telephone tutorials and face-to-face seminars.


The first public intervention on the idea came in his ‘University of the Air’ speech in Glasgow in September 1963. Having been leader for just eight months, Wilson was keen to adopt the language of the future, building up to his ‘White Heat’ speech on technology.

In Glasgow, Wilson spoke of a new fourth television channel to provide courses ‘for a wide variety of potential students’ such as those who having worked for a few years in industry ‘felt they could qualify as graduate scientists or technologists’.

He argued the current University system is ‘intolerable’ because ‘it is neither fair to those excluded from higher education nor acceptable in a nation whose need for more trained men and women is so great in a world of remorseless scientific and technological change’.

Wilson suggested people could acquire clerical skills while housewives could study humanities from home. Television and radio courses would be backed up by textbooks sent via mail and students could use facilities at technical colleges.

Wilson suggests it become a vehicle for modern languages, which was going to become a key skill for industrialists as Britain trades with the world.

Moreover, he argued that ‘there would be many who for non-vocational reasons would welcome such facilities’. He claimed ‘families intending to holiday abroad might wish to take a winter course in French, German, Italian or Spanish’.

He concluded ‘a scheme on these lines would be of the highest advantage both to the countless thousands in their homes and to the nation. Investment in the nation’s education, whether vocational, technical, scientific or in the humanities, is an investment in Britain’s future which cannot be measured in terms of money’

The Guardian supported the idea which ‘should bring something of high culture value’ of those ‘not able or anxious to undertake full time study’.

Wilson referenced it again at Scarborough during the White Heat speech:

‘an opportunity for those who, for one reason or another, have not been able to take advantage of higher education, now to do so with all that TV and radio and the State-sponsored correspondence course, and the facilities of a university for setting and marking papers and conducting examinations, in awarding degrees, can provide…

He concluded that

‘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.

At the 1964 election, Labour’s manifesto claimed

‘Labour will carry out a programme of massive expansion in higher, further and university education. To stop the “brain drain” Labour will grant to the universities and colleges of advanced technology the funds necessary for maintaining research standards in a period of rapid student expansion.’

In March 1965, Wilson appointed Jennie Lee as Minister of the Arts. He gave her a specific brief to deliver the University of the Air. According to Lee’s biographer, he told her

‘For God’s sake try to get this thing going…the DES is the most reactionary department in the Government.’

Jennie Lee met resistance both within the party and within the education establishment. Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Richard Crossman were sceptical that the scheme could achieve its ambitious aims.

Crossman believed that the degrees ‘would not be held in high esteem’. Lee’s biographer writes that the ‘Oxbridge men’ in the Cabinet viewed the OU as a ‘wreath for Nye Bevan’ and was dubbed the ‘tiresome widow’ by her colleagues.


Lee was adamant that it would be a University of the highest quality:

‘I am not interested in having the next best thing, a poor man’s university of the air, which is the sort of thing that that one gets if nothing else is In reach. We should set our sights higher than that’

She argued that:

‘the most insulting thing that could happen to any working class man or woman was to have a working class university’

The principle of open access was central:

‘Enrolment as a student of the University should be open to everyone … irrespective of educational qualifications, and no formal entrance requirement should be imposed.’

Conservatives opposed the idea. Most famously, Iain Macleod, the Shadow Chancellor, attacked her proposal as ‘blithering nonsense’. The Times Higher Education Supplement described plans for the OU as ‘the sort of cosy scheme that shows the socialists at their most endearing but impractical worst.’

By 1966, Lee compromised on the plans and accepted that the proposal for a fourth channel would potentially sink the project. Instead, it would be established on BBC2.


On the 25thFebruary 1966, Lee finally published her white paper on it. It laid out the platform for a scheme with lectures, correspondence courses and tutorials at adult education centres. It would command at least two hours peak viewing time, five days per week.

Labour’s  1966 manifesto pledged: to ‘give everyone the opportunity of study for a full degree’ which would ‘mean genuine equality of opportunity for millions of people for the first time’.

After the election, and with a substantial majority behind the, Lee reaffirmed that

‘we would be entirely out of tune with the spirit of the times if we thought men and women working….would thank us for being palmed off with a kind of ‘paddy-the-next-best-thing’

However the Guardian was concerned that Lee’s ambition was ‘inflated’ and expressed discontent that ‘its sponsors had set their sights too high’.

Lee eventually secured £1m to fund the OU. She told reporters

‘I’ve always said that I didn’t want to be associated with anything going off half cock’.

On April 23rd1969 a Royal Charter was granted and presented to the first OU Chancellor Geoffrey Crowther.

Despite losing her seat in the 1970 election, Lee worked to ensure a political consensus around the OU, eventually convincing Margaret Thatcher that it was a worthwhile venture.

In the OU’s first year of teaching in 1971, some 24,000 students enrolled; by the end of the 1980s, more than 100,000 graduated. By 2009, over 190,000 students were registered at the Open University.

Jennie Lee’s role in creating The Open University was acknowledged in 1973 when the a Library was named after her.

For Harold Wilson, the Open University was the achievement he claimed to be ‘most proud’ of when he cited it at a farewell dinner to commemorate the end of his premiership in 1976.

In a lecture given by Harold Wilson at the OUSA conference in 1977, he reflected on his initial ideas for creating an Open University


For Michael Foot the OU  ‘was an achievement which can be mentioned in the same breath as the establishment of the National Health Service’.

‘There it is, 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’

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