I spent the afternoon at the Open University graduation ceremony at the Barbican, London, yesterday. It is a highlight of my professional year. Inspiring, moving, funny – beats any cinema or theatre experience. That’s probably rooted in the many human dramas generated and personal investments made as Open University students, family and friends work to get over the finishing line. I’m always choked up by these things, and the moment that tipped me over the edge this time was a big lunged fellow shouting from the back of the enormous packed auditorium as his partner received her degree: ‘I LOVE YOU BABE’.
In that moment we all did. It crystallised all the effort of student, their support network, teachers, administrators, media people and more who make an Open University degree possible. Then to speeches by Honorary Doctor Ken Loach and the VC Martin Bean. Ken argued for a recovery of public goods (‘you wouldn’t be paying fees if we still owned telecoms would you’) and closed with contrasting quotes from Alan Sugar, who justified the greed of business, and John Donne’s ‘no man is an island’ poem. Martin continued the collective goods theme with an account of how adult education renews people and gives back the creativity eroded through the course of growing up.
But I can’t do better in summarising the way I feel about the institution I work for than the tweet by Peter Florence, Director of Guardian Hay Festival the day he got an honorary degree: ‘Deeply inspiring Open University graduation day in Cardiff yesterday. The OU is up there with the NHS, Beatles and Shakespeare’.
The OU and NHS were ideas that were brought into being and made effective by creativity and effort. Along with desperate rearguard actions to protect the public institutions we have we also need to gather the energy to generate new ideas and put in place new shared goods that are deserving of our love.