Asa Briggs and new maps of learning

Asa Briggs’ interest in how to support learning influenced his work at two universities. The Open University’s Daniel Weinbren explains.

Asa Briggs

Higher Education enjoyed a huge expansion during the 1960s with new universities and polytechnics being opened and many older universities expanding their numbers. One man, Asa Briggs, played significant roles at the first of the new universities of the decade, the University of Sussex located just outside Brighton, which opened in 1961, and the last university to open in that decade, The Open University, based in Milton Keynes, which opened in 1969.

After having been appointed as a Professor at Sussex, Briggs rose to become the CEO, the Vice-Chancellor, between 1967 and 1976. Briggs was also a member of the Planning Committee of The Open University, 1967–69, chairing that body’s working group on students and curriculum. He went on to become the Chancellor of The Open University between 1978 and 1994 and he also taught at The Open University. Lord Briggs was awarded a Fellowship of the Open University in 1999 and had buildings named in his honour at both institutions.

The idea of a university in Brighton had been discussed in the town for almost half a century before, in 1958, Brighton Corporation’s scheme for a university was approved. It received a Royal Charter and sought to cater to the ‘bulge’ in demand due to the large number of babies born in 1947 who had gone on to study ‘A’ Levels. Briggs brought fresh ideas about the curriculum and teaching, building on his experiences of holding senior posts at other universities and on his membership of the overarching funding body, the University Grants Committee. He developed a ‘map of learning’ in which a variety of strands of knowledge were connected through multidisciplinary schools. Students were not numbers to be taught but individuals engaged in their own learning. Subsequently, Briggs reflected on his time as Vice-Chancellor. Although students had demonstrated against the honorary doctorate awarded to Harold Wilson, thrown red paint at a US Embassy official and shouted down a visiting professor, Briggs said that he never generalised about ‘the young’ but ‘always tried to work closely with them as individuals’.

By contrast with the long-held desire for Brighton to get a university, the foundation of a national, widely accessible ‘university of the air’, designed to support part-time learners principally through correspondence and broadcasting, was announced only in 1963 by Labour leader Harold Wilson. It was not party policy and a White Paper on the plans for a university of the air were only published in 1966, three years before The Open University opened. There was no support from a local council; indeed the town of Milton Keynes did not exist and there was opposition from within Westminster, Whitehall, the established universities and the press. Briggs was one of the handful of people who ensured the creation and survival of The Open University.

Associated with the Labour government, it opened to students in the year the Conservatives were elected. Although the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer had condemned it as ‘blithering nonsense’ the Education Secretary recognised that it was cost efficient, provided opportunities for aspirational voters and was, as one newspaper later reported, full of ‘Short-haired students keen to work’.

Here too Briggs focused on innovative teaching and in particular his interest in broadcasting. He had taken part in ‘The Fifty-One Society’, a series of radio programmes broadcast between 1951 and 1962 which helped harness the power of broadcasting to the values of liberal education. Between 1961 and 1995 he wrote the five-volume history of British broadcasting. Sussex deployed closed-circuit television for classroom observation in teacher training, to record and play back lectures and to display teaching materials. The university also had audio-visual units, language laboratories and some programmed learning. Technology, Briggs felt, should be employed to enable collaborative learning and he promoted learning methods associated with this idea both at Sussex and The Open University.

In 1979, when he was formally inaugurated as the Chancellor of the Open University (a largely honorary, ambassadorial position) he recalled that, unlike other universities the OU had a legal agreement with the BBC and together the two institutions had made over 5,000 radio and television programmes. He also noted that students had access to print materials and the face-to-face and telephone tuition and that the university’s openness carries with it a ‘unique vulnerability’.

Briggs had himself taught using television while at the OU. The OU Planning Committee had insisted that television ‘should not be wasted in the straightforward visualisation of lectures’ and Briggs’ television programme for an arts first level, foundation course, used film and music in imaginative ways. Leeds: A Study in Civic Prideis far more than a dry lecture to camera, or a travelogue. This is history which contextualises the level at which people lived their lives within broader regional, national and international perspectives so that those new to studying and with only one opportunity to watch the programme (this is before video playback machines were commonplace) could get a sense of why history is important and relevant to them and how it can be created by ordinary learners everywhere. This was an opportunity to watch an expert (Briggs had written many books about Victorian society) enthusing about his subject, making support for learning central, and providing learners with opportunities to construct their own understandings, to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers of education. There was also a personal touch. When he introduced footage of a flax spinning mill he noted that the wealthy owner provided baths of his workforce. By contrast, Briggs tells viewers that his Leeds-based grandfather used to dive in the local canal to cool off at the end of a working day.

Through demonstrating a continuing engagement with innovative pedagogy which placed the support of learning and learners at its heart, Asa Briggs helped the University of Sussex and The Open University to thrive.

Further information

Dr Daniel Weinbren works in Social Sciences at The Open University. This article was originally published in January 2017 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.