Tuesday 16 July 2013

Open University

In my recent homage to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, I referred to the British Open University, with which she was long associated, as a "wonderful, empowering, facilitator of heroes".  This year OU is celebrating 40 years of graduating students having taken on its first cohort in 1971.  I say taken on rather than taken in advisedly because OU's defining attribute is distance learning, there being effectively no undergraduates on campus in Milton Keynes.  It was founded by the Labour Government of Harold "Britain is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution" Wilson at the urging of Michael "Family and Kinship in East London" Young to widen the access to higher education.  Before the internet, OU would broadcast TV programmes before breakfast (this was 10 years before breakfast television as well) and anyone could see programmes about the physics of springs, Mayan calendars or the Krebs Cycle if they got up early enough.  The hair-styles were pure 1970s and the material was wonderful.

I've alluded to my very expensive education before [B] [S] [G].  The Mater and Pater had grown up during the great depression and just about the time they might have gone to University, WWII broke out and they made do with the University of Life (and Death, indeed).  But they recognised and believed that the most effective leg-up they could give their children was to buy us the best education they could afford.  With help from a grant from Essex County Council, they put me through college.  I made a less than stellar fist of the standard absorb-syllabus-regurgitate-at-exams face of University, finishing with a pretty crappy degree.  But I learned a lot during those years - how to change a nappy, how to make bread, how to hunt down information, how to decide what was important.

A few years ago, I helped mentor a smart, hard-working and articulate final year project student in TCD.  Towards the end of the project, she said she couldn't deliver some necessary analysis over-night because she had to go out to work for money.  When I expressed surprise that she was doing that at the same time as preparing for her final exams, she replied, with a patience reserved for the simple  "How, Bob, do you imagine I got through college?".  Red face and I should have known better because at about the same time The Boy invited us all over to Gateshead to see him graduate from OU.

When we came back from foreign to Ireland in 1990 in order to put The Boy through his Leaving Certificate, we looked for a school in Greater Dublin that was non-denominational, co-educational and free.  We had to compromise on this hopelessly aspirational agenda and I coughed up rather a lot of money to a school near Howth that met the first two criteria.  When he left school, he resolutely refused to accept any more money from his parents and went to make his own future and seek his own fortune.  Early on, he started working in the world of aviation and clocked up a phenomenal number of air-miles on employee-only jump-seats, and where planes wouldn't go, he took trains or ferries. Auckland, Bogata, Carcassonne  . . . Hungary, Italy, Japan . . . Rucksack, Shinkansen, Trek.  My twenties had been committed to raising The Boy, his were committed to making something of himself.  Somewhere in the middle of the decade, he signed up for his first OU course, because he figured there was no future batting in planes to landing-bays or pulling suitcases from their bowels. He took courses in science and then courses in engineering and he scrabbled the time to complete his assignments after a full day's work.  He completed courses while he lived and worked in three different countries.  And after nine years of this relentless, self-imposed, self-disciplined mill he got his degree.  If I was in the business of hiring people, I would always interview graduates of Open University -  just having such a degree shows that they have grit.

Some institutions, regardless of their intrinsic worth, have added and inspirational value for us all because they provide opportunities for people to find the heroic within themselves.  The RNLI is one, I suggest that OU is another.  They need to be cherished and supported.

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