I’M SWAPPING tales about the Open University with its Scottish director Susan Stewart and she tells me about the unlikely Tory champion who helped save it for the nation. “I’m amazed the Tories didn’t try to privatise it,” I tell her. “Aye, well you say that,” says Ms Stewart, “but Margaret Thatcher played a key role in helping to save it.”

A year after the Open University had been established by Harold Wilson’s Government in 1969 its future was placed in jeopardy following Labour’s defeat by Edward Heath’s Tories at the 1970 General Election.

How long could an institution offering free higher learning to working-class and marginalised people be expected to last under a Conservative administration?

Wilson had handed the task of establishing the OU to Jennie Lee, his smart and wily Arts Minister. Lee, a miner’s daughter from Lochgelly in Fife, immediately set about the task of future-proofing it from the potential predations of incoming Tories. The inspirational American trade union organiser, Big Bill Heywood had once said: “Nothing’s too good for the working-class,” and Jennie Lee set about proving it.

“Jennie Lee gave it Royal Charter status, which meant it could be ring-fenced to an extent,” says Stewart. “But, having only been established for a year or so it remained vulnerable to right-wing actors, including a few in Heath’s government who simply couldn’t stomach the radicalism of what it was set up to achieve.”

That’s when Margaret Thatcher stepped in. The future Prime Minister was then Education Secretary in Heath’s administration and was known to disdain the entitlement of the Tories’ Oxbridge good old. “She became a key ally of the Open University and helped to ensure its survival in those early years,” says Stewart.

“It was regarded as an experiment in 1969, but what an experiment. It was so visionary and radical. I think it’s second only to the NHS in terms of our post-World War Two social achievements. It’s authentic socialism in action and it’s as relevant now as it was 53 years ago. And all thanks to a miner’s daughter from Fife with the help of the Conservatives’ patron saint.”

Susan Stewart has a new favourite Open University story. It had unfolded the previous week at the degree ceremony in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. “One of most moving moments came when a Ukrainian woman stepped up to take her degree certificate.

“I could see our new graduates queuing up by the side of the stage and I could see her in her Ukrainian national costume. Our vice-chancellor gave her a big hug and then she walked out in front holding up a giant sunflower to a standing ovation from the audience.”

The Open University has recently launched a support package for Ukrainians living in Scotland and across the UK. It includes fee-waivers for existing Ukrainian; free resources dedicated to supporting Ukrainians now living in the UK, including free language training and mental and wellbeing support and the launch of a free online culture and language course to help UK families hosting Ukrainians and those working with or caring for them.

The first encounter many of us once had with the old Open University was sticking on the telly howling with the drink at 2am long after the normal programmes had finished and watching bespectacled mathematicians in kipper ties and tank tops doing their algebra and sending science kits through the post. The original campus at Milton Keynes even had its own post office. The TV broadcasts stopped in 2006 and it is now mostly online.

It’s now perhaps the UK’s greatest resource for levelling-up. Susan Stewart says: “The average age of our students is now 28 and we have 22,000 studying with us in Scotland, the fourth biggest student body in the country. At our graduation ceremony last Friday, the youngest graduate was 19 and our oldest was 89.

“More than 25% of them have disabilities because, let’s face it, the Open University is the only higher education option they have. The process of studying helps with their mental health because it cuts out the anxiety of walking into a large lecture theatre. We have many students who dropped out of their earlier university courses because of anxiety and mental health. One of our biggest successes is that 50% of our students in STEM subjects are women. We’re successfully addressing the need for more women to study these subjects.”

The old canard about the Open University and parity of esteem among the much older and established universities is as obsolete as the tweed jackets and leather patches of 1970s lecturers. The OU is much more even than a university: it provides a second chance for those who for a variety of reasons – most to do with inequality and disadvantage – had previously missed out.

“The educational establishment acknowledges that we are reaching people that they maybe can’t,” says Stewart. “And during the Covid-19 pandemic our expertise at providing online, digital delivery helped many universities, colleges and schools. In last year’s Annual National Students Survey the Open University Scotland was voted top, along with St Andrews, with a 92% student satisfaction grade.”

Employers have long had a high regard for the Open University. Many people graduating with a degree from the OU have successfully juggled a myriad of family and social commitments to complete their degrees.

Many are carers or parents with young children and so securing a degree is a robust indicator of time-management and prioritisation. It represents hope and the chance of improvement for those who have been marginalised by their personal circumstances or by sheer poverty and crime.

“Many of our students have encountered very challenging circumstances,” she says. “Around 40% of them live in neighbourhoods in SIMD20 and SIMD40 (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation), the two most deprived postcode areas. A high percentage of them are care experienced.”

There is an insidious lie embedded deep within Britain’s multifarious patterns of inequality. It’s most enthusiastically propagated by those who benefit from it. It’s that the most lucrative professional degree courses – medicine, law, accountancy, dentistry – are dominated by affluent students because they are considered to be cleverer than poor children. Yet, if you take out the tens of thousands spent on private tutors; a fee-paying school and a placement at daddy’s friend’s legal practice many of them wouldn’t cut the mustard.

The Open University is an endless rebuke to such iniquitous social gerrymandering. It exists to chivvy out the innate gifts and thirst for learning that are too often stunted by a class ceiling. If you have a long-term, debilitating illness or are disadvantaged by events beyond your control the Open University will find a way to reach you.

Stewart is proud of initiatives in this area. “We’ve been training people from different organisations to analyse and curate our modules for specific groups such as people with Parkinson’s. We recently created one with Sainsbury’s to help them be more dementia-friendly. We do a lot of work with the trade unions.

“We’re also granting senior school pupils access to some of our first-year modules. This has considerable benefits: it provides a sense of aspiration for those schools which don’t have a tradition of sending many of their pupils to university and it gives children a taste of what university is like and early guidance in independent studying. This improves their success in first year.”

Stewart possesses one of Scotland’s most gilded CVs. “It’s not exactly been linear,” she says. Having been a political journalist she then held down a number of high-profile communications posts, including the old Strathclyde Region and Glasgow City Council before becoming chief press officer for the new Scottish Parliament and later leading Glasgow University’s communications team.

Her most challenging task was to organise a media centre at Camp Zeist in Holland for 300 international journalists covering the Lockerbie trial “while ensuring that the local Lockerbie newspaper and the Syracuse University student newspaper were both given due prominence among the big beasts”. She was the new, devolved Scotland’s first ever ambassador when she was appointed to Washington by Jack McConnell.

You get the sense, though, that her seven years in this job have given her the greatest satisfaction. “I’m only a small part in a massive organisation, but it genuinely transforms people’s lives and provides better outcomes for them: people who are in prison; people with disabilities; those who have been written off. If we didn’t exist someone would have to invent us.”