Open University graduation ceremonies always choke me up, but this was certain to be a big one for me. Last October my mother, an OU student, learnt that she would die within a year. She was magnificent about it. Life is terminal as they say, and her last breath was on 30th December after an odd but surprisingly happy Christmas with all generations of the family around her.
She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a paper mill town in Ontario. There were four dependents hanging off her mother’s three part time jobs, and some other very difficult experiences thrown into the mix. School didn’t go so well for my mother. But she always loved reading and always wrote a really great letter. So in her mid seventies she quietly ordered an OU prospectus and signed up for the Humanities foundation module. Her objective, sixty years after leaving school, was to scrape a pass. This she achieved (despite there being a little too much feeling in her Stalin essay). She had always derived enormous satisfaction from the progress of her family, but never paid much attention to her own.
Passing just one OU module transformed her sense of herself and her own intellectual worth. A few days after she learnt of the terminal nature of her illness I asked if there was anyone she’d like me to be in touch with at the OU, such as the Tutor of her second module… (the rest of my sentence would have been, you know, about having her studies disrupted by imminent death…). She interrupted me – ‘yes actually could you do that? There’s no way I’m going to get the first Assignment in on time with all this going on’. I’m certain she had a better quality of death because of the confidence she gained from studying.
I went to a university that despite an 800-year history has only recently permitted women to hold full degrees. Yesterday’s graduation ceremony saw our new Chancellor Martha Lane Fox give an Honorary Masters degree to Jenny Dawson, social entrepreneur and founder of Rubies in the Rubble, for her services to ethical business. Martha and Jenny both enthusiastically praised the achievements of the graduates and their families. The hand-blistering clapathon saw the packed Barbican theatre congratulate, amongst hundreds of others, a mother of nine children, a fifteen year old young man (youngest ever graduate at the OU), some people of my mother’s vintage and plenty of people in between.
The heckles are always the best bit, from a child’s ‘I’m proud of you Dad’ through to a loving but heartfelt ‘about time too’ from a long-suffering OU spouse. It remains Britain’s biggest and most diverse student community by a very long chalk, and the OU plays a huge role in building people’s confidence, skills and capabilities. A combination of quality and openness is at the core of these thousands of life changing experiences.
I’ll return to work with a spring in my step. But these are threatening times. Everyone in the OU is working to uphold our core principles, but the current policy and funding environment presents massive challenges. So here is a plea to the UK’s political leaders at a critical hinge point in higher education policy: recall the imagination, creativity and boldness that created such a brilliant institution as the Open University. Instead of creating huge headaches for us, work to find ways to invest in learning that is guaranteed to be open to everyone.