The Fife woman we all need to thank for the Open University

Over two million students have a very special reason to thank a certain lady from Fife.
The Fife woman we should all be thanking for the Open University.The Fife woman we should all be thanking for the Open University.
The Fife woman we should all be thanking for the Open University.

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.

Later this month the Open University celebrates the 50th anniversary of its inception and we have a Lochgelly lady by the name of Jennie Lee to thank.

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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, that in 1965 was charged with creating a model for a new type of university.

With a desire to build a more effective economy bygiving 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, until then, merely dreamed of.

But would it work?

Certainly Lee had her fair share of sceptics and doubters.

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.

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But who was this largely forgotten about Lochgelly lass, responsible for the OU?

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.

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

There was no holding her back as 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 is credited as spearheading the creation of the National Health Service.

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

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It’s fundamentally down to this Fifer that we have an Open University that educates around 175,000 students and employees over 8000 staff.

Regardless of your political persuasion, everyone, not just Fifers, should be taking the time to raise a glass to her in the coming weeks.

What a fantastic legacy Jennie Lee left us.

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