The Fife woman responsible for 50 years of the Open University

We have a miner's daughter from Fife to thank for the Open University.
We have a miner's daughter from Fife to thank for the Open University.

There are now over two million people and counting who have a very special reason to thank a former miner’s daughter from Fife.

For that’s the number of students who have benefited over the last 50 years from what was, when it was launched, a groundbreaking and radical new way for people of all ages and from all sections of society to gain a university qualification.

Jennie Lee was the driving forced behind the creation of the new university which has now helped over 2m people.

Jennie Lee was the driving forced behind the creation of the new university which has now helped over 2m people.

On April 23 the Open University celebrates the 50th anniversary of its inception and it’s a Lochgelly lady by the name of Jennie Lee that successive generations of students have to thank.

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Jennie Lee with husband Aneurin (Nye) Bevan.

Jennie Lee with husband Aneurin (Nye) Bevan.

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For it was Jennie, in her capacity as Minister of State for Education during the ‘white heat’ days of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1965, that was charged with creating a model for a new type of university.

With a desire to build a more effective economy by giving access to the highest standards of scholarship and higher education, the Open University ideal was both imaginative and radical.

Not only that, it would create more equality and give, for the first time, a vehicle for social mobility, which, until then, was attainable.

But the question from her critics, of which there were many, was would it work?

Certainly Lee had her fair share of sceptics and doubters, many of whom came from within her own Labour Party.

But while the project eventually came in well over the original budget anticipated for set up, Lee had a staunch supporter in Wilson and after nearly four years of hard work and dogged determination from Lee, the university was finally granted a Royal Charter by the Privy Council on April 23, 1969.

You may be forgiven for asking just who was Jennie Lee, largely forgotten by today’s public.

She was the daughter of a Fife miner, born into the coalmining community of Lochgelly on November 3, 1904.

Educated at Beath Secondary School before going, with support from the Carnegie Trust, to Edinburgh University to study law, it seems education was in her blood.

After gaining her teaching certificate, she spent time in Cowdenbeath before eventually deciding to stand as a Labour candidate in the 1929 North Lanarkshire constituency.

Against the odds, her win, a sensation at the time, propelled her to Westminster, and made her the youngest woman ever to have been elected to the House of Commons.

Soon after she took the opportunity of her maiden speech to attack Winston Churchill’s budget proposals.

She later married the Welsh Labour politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, who later, as Health Minister, spearheaded the creation of the National Health Service.

In a career as a politician that spanned three decades, she was also a champion of the arts and a firm believer that everyone should have equal right to education.

She passed away in 1988 at the age of 84 having bequeathed her collection of personal papers to the Open University which now holds them as the Jennie Lee Collection

While her public profile may have faded into the distance may have faded into the the distance in recent times, Jennie Lee’s achievements were certainly acknowledged by the town where she was born.

In 2012, as part of the refurbishment of Lochgelly Centre, the public library was renamed the Jennie Library in her honour. And in 2005 the newly formed Students’ Associatiion at the then Adam Smith College (now Fife College) refused to name themselves after Adam Smith, and instead chose the name Jennie Lee Students’ Association.