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23 June 1973: Alexandra Palace hosts first ever OU graduation ceremony

On 23 June 1973, the very first OU graduation ceremony was hosted at The People's Palace  and broadcast live on BBC2. Due to the large number of people who wanted to attend, the Open University's Milton Keynes campus proved to be too small to accommodate the 867 graduates and their families, so the University came to Alexandra Palace that could cope with 6,000 people and had much better facilities.

People travelled from all over the UK and even from as far as away as Australia to attend the ceremony. 

Les Holloway in the OU magazine Sesame, describes the momentous day: ‘The crowds plod up the steep slopes from their cars and buses. Most are serious faced, some nervously cheerful, some deep in abstraction. Inside the faded Victorian splendour of Ally Pally there is a disciplined bustle. Most of the graduates have elected to wear gowns. Some who had rejected the formality of academic dress find their resolution weakening.'

The first honorary Doctors of the University were commended at the Palace: 10 men and women including Jane Drew the first female president of the Architectural Association and Paulo Freire the Brazilian education pioneer then in exile.

Walter Perry, then Vice-Chancellor used his speech to commend the assembled students and praise their contribution to the development of the fledging University. He said: “You, the graduates were the goal that we dimly discerned through the mists of doubt and uncertainty”

Those who succeed have exhibited not only the necessary intellectual capacity, but also qualities of staying power and determination that will, I predict, come to be regarded as the particular hallmark of …The Open University.”

Read more about the first students here

The OU's first home

The link between Ally Pally and the OU began in 1969, the year the OU received its Royal Charter, a BBC production department for OU programmes was set up at Alexandra Palace, London, in premises vacated by TV news.

The first Open University broadcasts went out on BBC Two – itself a recent innovation – and on radios three and four, in the first week of January 1971. They actually preceded the signing of the first of a series of formal agreements which has governed the relationship between the University and the BBC ever since. This took place in December 1971.

Mention of those early black-and-white TV programmes still conjures up images of earnest, bearded professors with flipcharts. But they made The Open University a household name. And at the time, they were breaking new ground.

Social scientist Professor Michael Drake, one of the academics who took part in those pioneering recordings, recalled the challenges in a later interview. ‘Each programme took one day. We rehearsed once, then recorded it, with no stopping because of errors. I’m surprised I don’t have nightmares still.’ And there was innovation. OU lecturer Robert Bell recalled many maths programmes which ‘involved ingenious working models that would have been unavailable then in a conventional university’.

A number of technological developments were used or trialled at the OU Production Centre; the BBC’s first video rostrum camera, for example, was installed at Alexandra Palace in the 1970s. People think of Open University TV programmes being broadcast to an audience of bleary-eyed students and insomniacs late at night, but in the days before video recorders, they had to be shown when students were available to view the transmission itself – before BBC2 started up on weekday evenings, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The OU production centre was moved from Alexandra Palace to the Walton Hall campus in July 1980, where technological innovation in production continued.

Small screen heroes

Tags for Forum Posts: Alexandra Palace, open university

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Replies to This Discussion

Brilliant piece of local history Liz and yet it involved people from all over the world and a truly significant event in adult education. thanks for posting. 

Some of the best documentaries on the TV today are OU/BBC collaborations, shown in primetime slots.  

True. I used to use OU materials a lot when I was a lecturer. It's a great resource. 

Now you can do a degree with pretty much any top university in the world ... online. They're in for the money of course; each course/module with one lecturer and 1000s of students.

The advent of MOOC looks to be an interesting development for adult education and of course the Open University are in the vanguard with their Future Learn programme launching soon.

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