The OU at 50 – Looking Back, Looking Forward…

The OU is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. How much has it changed... and what will the future hold?

I expect most people will have seen it’s the OU’s 50th birthday this year (that makes it a little bit younger than me, but not a lot!).  

It’s changed a lot in that time. Early students could only get Open degrees, not named… and in fact, for many years, it was only a BA on offer, not a BSc.  What’s more, they had to do 480 credits for an Honours degree, not the 360 credits we have now. Plus the modules (well, they were courses back then) started in February, ran to October and had exams. Oh, and the vast majority of them had summer schools –  week-long residentials which took place at various universities around the country.  And of course, students back then were staying up past midnight or getting up before 6 a.m. to catch those TV broadcasts that were a vital part of their course. 

I don’t date back quite that far, of course! But it’s changed even since I started in 2008. Would you believe my first module actually used quite a few clips from the 70s-era TV programmes, though of course now on a DVD.  I had to put the TMAs for my first module in the post – it was really nerve-wracking worrying if the postie would lose them, and I must have driven my poor tutor mad by insisting on emailing to check he’d received them!    I also had a CMA (computer marked assessment) filled in by pencil on a form, that had to be sent off to the Milton Keynes campus, rather than the iCMAs we have now.  We used to wait quite a bit longer for exam results too – exams were early October, and we got our results not long before Christmas.    Online tutorials were still in the future, and while we did have forums, they were on a system called FirstClass, not the type we have now.  I know social media was already a thing back then, but it hadn’t really taken off yet, so those forums were super-busy!   

I wonder what the future will hold? As a self-confessed OU addict, I hope I get a chance to be writing an article like this for the OU’s 75th anniversery, looking back nostalgically to 2019!

The OU TV presenters had such style! 😉

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Cath Brown


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  1. It was actually eight full credits that were needed for a BA (Hons). Then later a full credit was redefined as 60 points and more recently points were renamed credits.

    There was a limited range of full credit foundation courses (not modules): A100, D100, M100, S100 and T100. All students without advanced standing had to do two as well as the associated summer schools.

    1. I do remember the “full credit” and “half credit” courses – not in my day, but my mum’s. I date from the “points” and “courses” days myself.

      It’s interesting that the current “120 credits at level 1” rule was approximately in place then, though the exemption for “advanced standing” is notably missing now. I loved it best in the days I started where an Open Degree could have all 360 points at level 3, if you so wished!

      1. The two foundation courses didn’t have to be done one after the other. You could do one and then some second and third level courses, in any subject and in any order, and even do your second foundation course as the very last one.

        I did Engineering for my first degree and wanted just to do maths with the OU, so I claimed advanced standing and then relinquished most of it and started with M101 in 1988. By the time I got to six full credits, that was all that was needed for an honours degree, so I carried on and did the short-lived MMath as well.

  2. Great article Cath.

    I was a terrible nerd when I was in my early teens in the late 70s (probably still am!) and had a huge passion for Electronics and Physics and still do. I would wake at 6am and put my old black and white TV on and peer though blearly eyes at those lovely old programmes, before heading for school. Even at that age I managed to learn things from them. I have one or two on reel to reel somewhere (sound only) and have the old (trumpet?) fanfare they used to use on the tv as an mp3.

    I hoped to be able to upload an image I just took of the ‘OU Broadcast and Assignmant Calendar 1979’ that the lovely people at the OU sent a very young me when I wrote and asked. I see the dog-eared pages showing what I planned and watched and it brings back great memories. Now in my 50s, I find myself in a position to be studying with the OU and after all this time, I am not remotely disappointed. The only thing missing are the TV programmes, they would be so useful still. In these days of seemingly endless tv channel space, perhaps an OU TV channel could come about?

    Is there a way to upload images to comments?

  3. I remember FirstClass too, Cath, and doing everything by paper and handing things in. I will say I do miss the face-to-face tutorials despite the progress made with Adobe Connect etc. Onwards and upwards!