Humble v-c welcomes University of the Air's open-access destiny

The Open University's Brenda Gourley discusses the institution's future with Melanie Newman

April 23, 2009

Walter Perry, The Open University's first vice-chancellor, did not apply for the job out of any "deep-seated urge to mitigate the miseries of the depressed adult".

Rather, he was "persuaded that the standard of teaching in conventional universities was pretty deplorable".

"It suddenly struck me that if you could use the media and devise course materials that would work for students all by themselves, then inevitably you were bound to affect - for good - the standard of teaching in conventional universities."

Forty years later, the institution's contemporary vice-chancellor, Brenda Gourley, argues that the "University of the Air" is still setting the standards for its traditional peers.

"Some of our students say they've received more personal attention from The Open University than they had when they were at conventional universities," she said.

"Right from the start, we've been unremittingly focused on the quality of teaching material and student support."

Professor Gourley, who is due to retire this year, began her academic career as a part-time accountancy student at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, working as a clerk with a firm of accountants during the day and studying at night and on Saturdays. "I was the only girl in a class of 500 males," she recalled.

She joined the staff of the University of Natal (now known as the University of KwaZulu-Natal) in 1973, and became vice-chancellor there in 1994, the year apartheid collapsed.

She said: "Those were important times in the life of the nation. We had to deal with things that vice-chancellors here don't have to think about - student riots, hostage-taking: you had to be a good negotiator."

When a headhunter rang to suggest she apply for The Open University post, she said she was interested but "couldn't imagine a job like that going to a woman from the edge of Africa".

Assuming she would not get the job, Professor Gourley was totally relaxed at the interview. She took up the role in 2002.

A similar assumption meant that she left last month's 2009 Women in Public Life Awards ceremony before the Outstanding Achiever of the Year prize had been awarded. A colleague had to accept it on her behalf.

"I had already won the International Public Servant of the Year prize, wasn't feeling very well and had no expectation of getting the second one, so I left," Professor Gourley explained.

She won the awards in March for her commitment to providing free educational material to developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Online resources

The biggest change during her seven years in charge of The Open University has been the technological progress that has made open-access study possible, she said.

"I've always been interested in education as a means of changing people's lives and pursuing social justice. There are so many who don't have access to decent libraries and textbooks. To them, being able to access good material on the web must be like manna from heaven."

She added: "The name attached to putting material online for free is the Open Educational Resources for Free movement - the fact that it's called 'Open' made it seem like The Open University's destiny."

Professor Gourley was "frantic" for the institution to be in the vanguard of the movement, since The Open University is already a global leader in distance learning.

In June 2008, it and University College London became the first British universities to offer free downloads of their material via Apple's iTunes service.

"If we weren't part of that, we would have felt as though we were falling behind," she said.

Technology is likely to play an increasingly important role in The Open University's future under the leadership of Martin Bean, Professor Gourley's successor and currently general manager of Microsoft's Worldwide Education Products Group.

"Technology is absolutely central to the institution: it's about how many more people we can reach now that telephones have become little computers in our hands and we have satellites, too," Professor Gourley said.

If adapting to and using new technology presents a long-term challenge for the institution, funding is a more immediate concern. The university was one of the worst hit by the Government's decision to stop funding students who are taking ELQs - qualifications equivalent to the ones they already have.

"I campaigned against it not just because it has affected The Open University, but because it's bad for the country," Professor Gourley said. "It's a disincentive to look after people that need to reskill. I remain hopeful that it will be reversed, but in the meantime we will have to cut our cloth accordingly."

In this light, the institution is looking to drop some of its 550 courses and cut staff numbers.

Professor Gourley said: "Technology could help us save money. It may lead the sector to share in ways it hasn't been good at doing in the past. Hard times focus the mind on what's important and what's not - what really does improve the student experience? We might have a sleeker institution as a result."

The Open University: TIMELINE

1926: Educationist and historian J.C. Stobart advocates a "wireless university".

1964: Jennie Lee, Minister of the Arts, starts work on the "University of the Air".

1969: Walter Perry is appointed as The Open University's first vice-chancellor. The institution is dismissed as "blithering nonsense" by Iain Macleod, Conservative MP for Enfield West. 1980 Student numbers reach 70,000.

1990s: The Open University expands into management, languages and law.

2008: The institution offers its teaching materials for free online and available to download via Apple's iTunes music store.

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