Yes, let’s save the Open University…

If you want to thank the man responsible for the Open University, take the train to Huddersfield and step into St George’s Square. Outside the railway station, which resembles a mini stately home, you will find a fine statue of Harold Wilson.

The front page of the newspaper some of us love to hate has for once a good cause this morning– “SAVE THE OPEN UNIVERSITY!”

Top Tories are urging the Government the save the “ladder of opportunity” that’s being “crippled by cuts”, according to the Mail. The number of students enrolling on courses is said to have fallen by more than 25% in the past five years. In its leader column, the Mail hails the OU as a “powerful engine of social mobility” and pleads for the review of higher education fund to “make it a special case”.

“Top Tories” may be urging a change of heart now, but the Open University was very much a Labour idea – more than that, it was the inspirational whim of the man remembered in bronze outside Huddersfield railway station.

Harold Wilson was born in the town on March 11, 1916. His father, Herbert, was a chemist who worked on the production of explosives for use on the Western Front, as well as being a supporter of the Labour Party. His mother, Ethel, came from a family with a history of trade unionism.

Herbert later lost his job, and Wilson said that the spectre of unemployment was what formed his politics.

On the OU website you can find a few words from  Wilson, who says the decision to create the OU, then known as the University of the Air, “was a political act”.

He announced it as a firm commitment of the incoming Labour government in a speech in Glasgow on September 8,1963. Wilson writes that “the text and outline proposals had been written out by hand in less than an hour after church on the previous Easter Sunday morning. It was never party policy, nor did it feature in Labour’s election manifesto.

“But our political history is full of cases where the Prime Minister has a private hobby-horse and is determined to use the not inconsiderable resources of his office to get it through, whatever the opposition.”

Wilson managed to achieve this, and the Open University has been a credit to him ever since. Only now the vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, has announced plans to reduce the number of staff and cut courses.

Staff at the Open University last week passed a vote of no confidence in Horrocks. Members of the University and College Union said his position was no longer tenable after he claimed the OU had allowed “academics to get away with not teaching for decades”. He later apologised for his remarks.

The cuts to the OU and the threats to its existence were first reported in the Guardian last month, so the Mail arrives late to that party. The Mail often picks up or even snatches a baton held aloft by others. But it doesn’t matter who started this rallying call, and it is good for once to be able to welcome a Daily Mail front page.

A spokesman for the OU told the Guardian that the university was midway through an “ambitious programme to transform the way we teach and support our students”.

Just the sort of PR puffery you’d expect to hear from a spokesman tasked with defending what cannot be defended. And, on a personal level, a reminder  why I’d have been hopeless at those PR jobs I applied for when first cast out of the newspaper nearly three years ago.

The statue of Harold Wilson in Huddersfield was designed by sculptor Ian Walters and is based on photographs taken in 1964 – not long after he announced his idea for the OU.

A fine piece of work that was unveiled by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 1999 – four years after Wilson’s death. Let’s hope Harold Wilson’s hobby-horse survives.

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