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January 11th will be the fiftieth anniversary of the first degrees awarded by Open University, according to this article from the BBC.
In college, most of my film-watching was with a classic film series on campus or at a couple of nearby art house cinemas. To see a major theatrical release took much more effort — a mile-and-a-half walk each way to pay for a more expensive ticket and more expensive snacks. But I made the effort to see a film about higher education, while experiencing my own higher education.
Educating Rita is about an adult student, a hairdresser, who realizes that she wants something different from the life that everyone expects her to have — a job, a husband, and children. She registers for Open University to learn English Literature and is assigned Professor Bryant as her tutor. Frank Bryant is jaded about life and education, and he is openly drinking alcohol on the job, causing problems for himself in his workplace. The two of them manage to propel changes in each other.
The two principal actors, Michael Caine and Julie Walters, won that year’s BAFTA acting awards and were nominated for Oscars. By 1983, Michael Caine already had a well-established career, but this was Julie Walters break-out role. Young people will recognize her as Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter films or as Rosie Mulligan in the Mama Mia films. Both actors have the comedic timing to make Educating Rita a fun film to watch.
I was fascinated by the whole concept of Open University, but it wasn’t very easy, in those days, to satisfy a casual interest, so I never learned much more about it than what was displayed in the film. Now, of course, I have the Wikipedia article and the official website.
Open University was a project of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s administration. It’s the largest university in the UK, measured by the number of students. From the beginning, it was designed for non-traditional students, either because they were older or because they were working or both. The idea was to widen access to higher education.
As we see in one scene of Educating Rita, BBC television broadcast was one way that educational material was presented. That was a feature of Open University from its inception in 1971 until 2006 when the World Wide Web made other possibilities cheaper to deliver and more convenient to consume. The OU is still involved in some BBC programming, continuing a tradition of prime-time documentary programs that served two purposes — required material for students and general interest for the wider population.
If you want a taste of Open University, check out these free, do-it-yourself, programs at their OpenLearn website.
Robin Wilson, son of the Prime Minister who was instrumental in the formation of Open University, is an emeritus professor. Before he retired, he was Head of the Pure Mathematics Department and Dean of the Faculty at Open University.
That brings back another college memory. Robin Wilson delivered a lecture at my university when I was an undergraduate in Computer Science.
He presented the answer to this question: What’s the minimum number of colors that can be used to color a map so that two adjacent regions never share the same color? The answer is four and the mathematical concept behind that is called the Four-Color Map Theorem.
The reason that was exciting for Computer Science was that it was the first mathematical theorem proved using assistance from a computer. That happened in the late 1970s, so there was still a lot of excitement about it in the early 1980s when I was a student.
Since I was a student in the department, I didn’t just attend the lecture. I was also present at the reception. I’m sure that I was too shy to say anything aloud, but I did hang around Robin Wilson’s conversational grouping for quite a while, entranced by his British accent, his warmth, and his enthusiasm for students and for education.
Have you seen Educating Rita? What did you think?