SIR WALTER PERRY (VICE-CHANCELLOR OF THE OPEN UNIVERSITY)

Mensa Meeting, November 3rd 1977. Notes made at the time by Rae West. These are unedited.

These are my full notes, unedited, made in 1977. They may be of interest to some.
    I was curious how new educational provision is viewed by people involved in this perhaps great experiment. At the time I had little idea of the importance of 'revisionism', except for the Vietnam War, where I was aware of large-scale censorship, and the assumption that, for example, the First World War was something unquestionably justified by the 'allies'. I was also personally not very happy with Universities in Britain and the priority of careerism over content.
    It's clear Perry had no doubts about the reliability of academic qualifications; it's all top-down teaching. He adds 'natural scholars' in an imprecise way. He is aware of the 'perpetual student' or 'professional student' syndrome. He did not answer questions on whether the expense was justified; it's simply an 'article of faith' that people who seek 'education' should get it. Some OU material was very original, in my view, partly because what I remember as A4 booklets must have been cheaper than books, permitting experiments. But Perry gave no clue how this had been arranged. It's worth noting that OU 'summer schools', taking place in universities in summer when the residential students were absent, and OU tutors and students present, were regarded as hotbeds of sex. It's also worth noting, with no surprise, that Perry had no conception whatever about 'revisionism', including the use of paper money to build debt.
    Added later: A notable aspect of the O.U. is its complete failure to produce any distinctive programmes: nobody says "remember that brilliant film on the real Shakespeare?" or "that O.U. series on aircraft was the best thing I've ever seen". Musing over BBC things, apparently made with the O.U., Coast, presented by a long-haired Scot (the BBC like regional accents—avoids the class issue), Oliver Neil, variously described as an actor, an archaeologist, and a journalist, I was struck by his WW2 attitude—whatever he is, he's not a historian. It was amusing to see his fawning attitude to Churchill, similar to fanatics in Russia adoring Stalin. One of these things included Alice Roberts, charged with providing human interest with a bunch of elderly engineers of supreme simplicity, working with rockets based on the V2. Why they use such simpletons is a serious issue in modern TV and proves the overseers have no interest in education: she clearly had no idea about nuclear weapons, rocket engines, viewing supposed satellites. I'd guess Neil Oliver is yet another Jew—Scotland has more or less secret links with Jews.

Perry had a white jacket, blue shirt, dark blue pullover, and red face with sparse hair, the dome of his head sculpted with many a crows foot, forehead wrinkle, and bag under the eye. Serebriakoff introduced him as a fellow club member, who moreover set up the OU - then known as the University of the Air. He spoke hesitantly in a Scots accent.

"I didn't quite know what the ubiquitous university meant. I decided not to give a standard talk; I jotted down a few random thoughts, but I'm quite happy to be interrupted."

"In an ideal society, each person would have the right to be educated to the limit of his or her capacity - that's an article of faith with me. There are two reasons for this: first, the needs of society are best met by maximising education. This ideal has always been challenged: the introduction of infant education; of secondary schools, and raising the school-leaving age, were all challenged. I think the argument that some people should have less education than they're capable of, so that they can do the menial jobs, is bunk. The second reason is that the needs of the individual members of society are best met by the maximum self-fulfillment; and these means education, for some. Since those who feel they're denied will be discontented. But it mustn't be compulsory. On the other hand, it may in fact breed discontent."

"Why do people want to continue education, at age 18 or so? Some are natural scholars: to them it matters more than anything. To many, it's a means to a vocational end. And for some, it's a way of postponing work - avoiding the hard effort, and it is an effort, of finding a job. And by the way, the level in the US is far beyond here. 50% of school leavers now go to 'college'. The word covers a multitude of institutions, from Harvard down to a Community College down in South Dakota, reaching barely 'O' level. The cult of conformity is real in the US, and this means that there's a level of discontent. I'd guess the last two categories include 95% of the whole - I think perhaps one person in 20 of these is a natural scholar."

"I believe it's a good thing that levels of expectation should change - all teachers and all technicians should be graduates. In the States, all technicians are science graduates: the expectation of science graduates in the US has gone down. So if expectations do change, why should people desire higher education? There's a fundamental dilemma - it's a Gilbertian situation. "When everybody's somebody, nobody's anybody."

"In the long term the growing concept of continuing education is the solution: that is, education available at any age, and not thwarted later. A further question is: why not have open secondary schooling? Or open Middle School. That's a large subject; I don't want to go into that. Ritchie Calder had the idea of a "University of Second Chance". Well that's out of date: what we want is the University of Alternative Chance. So access has to be easy. Several points ought to be met: there should be no entrance qualifications: the main objective of exam qualifications is to ensure uniformity. The mathematics I learnt aren't anything like today's mathematics. The qualifications ensure that all students know about the same. There should be no financial barrier. Well, we aren't in that position. Our courses cost £50 fee, £52 for summer school - plus books and travel; for each credit: total of 6 of these for an ordinary degree, or 8 for an honours degree. Anyway; the study must be at home and part-time. And there must be the maximum of freedom of choice of area of study. Operationally, this means that students must be over 21. And that distance learning methods are used. The corollary is that everything you do is open to view. Fees have gone up, and grants down, as the government insists. More students are expected than in full-time study. However, it costs hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce new courses. We wanted to begin with a bang, not a whimper. So we had 25,000 students in the first year. The modal age is 27 at the start, 33 at the finish. Newspaper emphasis is always on the elderly. 85% have "working class" backgrounds. But they have risen to be "middle class". They represent the deprived young who couldn't get to university. Many are very dedicated, as - I've heard by repute - ex-servicemen were. The sensibility of their choices is striking; when there are oddities, there are usually very good explanations. It's not a miscellaneous hodgepodge, as the newspapers said in 1969. Some study for the sake of it, about a fifth; many aren't first class honours material. 7% of the people are over 50's. There is a tremendous sense of emancipation: I've seen prisoners, and young married who got married at a very young age - prisoners in the home. It's touching to see them. The total public exposure makes invidious comparisons possible. Now there are challenges on Marx, religion, anything at all. At least the bias in the OU is overt, it's not hidden, there are no backroom persuaders about the place, it's there out in the open to be looked at. The students aren't taken in. I don't believe courses, academic courses, can be biased - they supply all points of view. I am worried about this. We are 85% financed by public money. So far, governments have punctiliously avoided government interference."

"I must mention education by stealth: I mean the enormous TV influence of BBC2. Audiences of 100 to 250 thousand are quite common. 7-8 years ago they were very small: TAM rating samples, for instance, didn't pick them up at all. So Margaret Thatcher's comment, about the OU sterilising the media, is not true. Next January we'll have 70,000 students, 8,000 staff. and the numbers themselves have formidable political strength."
    "Overseas, Germany, Spain, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, all have functioning distance learning systems. Japan, Holland, Costa Rica, Columbia - er, others too - have systems planned. Some use OU stuff; others, for instance Pakistan, buy agriculture and health care primarily. I expect student numbers to plateau at 75,000. By 1982 I expect a steady state. After that we can swap material. The cost of manufacture is high; a ploy is to set up and Institute to organise exchanges. In some countries, like Venezuela, a traditional education system can't be developed. Over half the people are under 18 and the others are ill-educated. So distance learning is suitable. We need people to combat for example IBM selling computer-assisted learning aids to Venezuela, although they're not the best thing. And their salesmen are good."

"But in the developed world, universities fear redundancy. So I expect the developed world to lead, and the rest to follow. When they do, I hope it'll be on a continuing education basis. Sometimes I see things in our set-up that make me weep - people in their 30s doing PhDs, still finishing their education, who've never done anything. We must recognize that people cannot be totipotential. Engineers have had the sense to cut the subject up: you have civil engineers, electronic engineers - no one tries to turn out 'engineers'. The medical world haven't learnt this yet. The outdating of specialised education makes it not seem worthwhile."

Q1: William Tyndale School shows how a captive audience provides an argument against compulsory education: children should be customers... [From an American, obviously interested in vouchers]
    WP: I don't know how 'freakish' the goings on were. I only saw the headlines.

Q2: OU in US?
    WP: There's no national system because of States rights. And the States are too small to support an OU.

Q3: How does it operate?
    WP: Well. Teams of 500 fully trained academic staff create and write the new course. Which is published, and homekits and aids are produced. The country is divided into 13 regions with regional directors ... we have part-time tutors, whose tutorials are optional. The Summer School is compulsory.

Q4 from Serebriakoff why do OU people have such a scruffy image?
    WP: You're thinking of the tutors, not the students! .. Oh, am I? ... Oh yes. I recruited myself in 1969 the first hundred or so teachers. The criticism at the time was that few established academics would risk their necks. They were mostly very able young enthusiasts determined to make it work. Hence the scruffy image.

Q5: On the working class - middle class background: are you happy to cater only for those already mobile upward? What about the genuine working class?
    WP: Well - I don't accept that word 'genuine'. Personally I'd be perfectly happy, although I know some other 'midwives' are not. But look, we're making gradual strides... 15-20% admitted are working class... There are grants difficulties. But we still have 10,000 of these people: that's more than all the others put together.

Q6: Harry Schachter: I'd like to ask a question on accreditation. Now, I was at City University, New York (it was then University College of New York) when the standards were high - up to the level of Harvard and Yale. Well, in about [date?] blacks, Puerto Ricans, chained themselves to the railings and demonstrated - the existing standards were too high, and they wanted to get in. This influx of almost elementary school people lowered the standards; due to political pressure.
    WP: Let them object. All they'll get is a meaningless piece of paper. A floor exists in Great Britain, so there's less variability than in the US, where there's an enormous range, so it's possible to offer low quality degrees. The machinery in the US is different: it couldn't have been done here, as external examiners monitor the papers. ... In the OU, we don't ask race, religion or creed; the only requirements are that the applicants be over 21 and resident in the UK - or rather [chuckles] that they have a UK address.

Q7 from Serebriakoff: Any difference in the value of their degrees?
    WP: Eh - Well less than 1% have degrees at the moment. The academic world recognises no difference. We can't, because of the methods we use, teach practical subjects - we have no medicine, agriculture, or law, for instance. And we permit 'majoring' in the American sense - 25-50% of the course in one subject. We can't get professional recognition in the applied subjects. Eh - employers treat it as no different from the new universities. Like Essex - no one had heard of that recently. Before we started, we held a survey of correspondence courses abroad; there wasn't much television experience. The University of South Africa at Pretoria had tens of thousands of students, with a success rate of 5-10%. An Australian outback course, with 1 week summer school, had an 80% rate, which is one reason why I insisted on compulsory summer school, as I thought it was such an important factor. A lot of sandwich correspondence courses go on in Eastern Europe and USSR.

Q8 from Schachter: An American survey of the value of the value of education showed the lifetime earnings of people in the States with high school education, college education, and those who left at 14. The results were sensational. {He didn't say what they were]
    WP: Well, that's why 50% go - because they read reports like that. Of course this often leads to discontent.

Q9: [Same blue-pullovered 35 yank as Q1. He yawned as Perry spoke, fidgeted. Serebriakoff wasn't too good a chairman, and people at the top end of the table were interjecting fairly freely, on the strength of their earlier questions, rather than being next in line for posing questions. The yank also was attempting to be dynamic. This made tension rather build up] There are a lot of students, and a lot of the work hasn't much to do with scholarship. Is there a national need to spend all this money?
    WP: Well 7-7.5% are in higher education. In the US [he noticed the accent] about 1/3 are in the equivalent of universities, 2/3 at community colleges, so the figure is about 16% in the US. So the figure is still half of what it is in the US. I see no evidence that the average ability or level of instruction is different. So there are more in the US for which there is no need, if we're talking in those terms.

Q10: [same chap] You haven't really answered my question. I wasn't asking about comparability. The students cost money; do, er, we get benefits from it?
    WP: ... the Open University is there, it's part of our establishment - our system is the most selective in the world! And the percentage graduating is the highest in the world.

    Serebriakoff: Much more money is spent on alcohol than on education ...
    WP: We have a £30 million budget, covering 1/4 of all undergraduates in the UK. The other universities have £600 million to spend. ...

Q11: [Polish chap? Regular Mensa attender] I met a German chemistry student the other day, who told me that if he passed all his exams first time - which no one had ever done! - he'd be finished in seven years! What will he remember of the first three years? Nothing!
    WP: Yes, agree. This is especially true in my field, medicine. [He may have said chemistry] It's always easier to add to a curriculum. so it grows and grows. Pruning is much more difficult.

Q12: [My question] What are the likely social effects of continuing education?
    WP: Degrees are silly things - they're end points only. The labels are too crude. The credit system is better. Continuing education won't happen in my lifetime. I've no idea what such a society would be like!

NOTES

1. 16 June 1977 New Scientist article 'Open College, Son of OU?' suggesting 'a novel training scheme for skilled technicians'.

2. Spread of techniques. In the US - Serebriakoff I think said - "many students read only about two books a year; for the rest they get by on what notes they take.' Probably from newspaper report.

3. Marxism: in 1960 there was one Professor of Sociology in Britain; now every university except St Andrews has a department. Duncan McRae had real fears for academic freedom from 1966-1974 he said; and recalled being warned not to offend the Socialist Society when addressing an Essex meeting. "Now there isn't one Marxist in my LSE seminar." Another chap said: "they're more concerned now about getting work at the end. The struggle might be compared to 19th century science - v- religion controversies." Another said that sociology wasn't a science - more like alchemy vs chemistry. And "the Marxists don't play fair; they compare our society with societies that have never existed."

Review of Manchester University 1973-1990 looking at controversial and important issues, to see what (if anything) typical universities actually do, in practice.
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Notes, transcription, HTML, upload © Rae West 17th June 2015. OU failure note added 11 Jan 2017