Had you asked me, I’d have said that I’d never be officially honoured in this country, and wouldn’t want to be, the whole thing being royal in spirit with imperial echoes. So I was taken by surprise twice-over, first when a letter arrived from the Open University saying it wanted to offer me an honorary degree for contributing to democracy, openness and participation and asking if I would accept; and second, by my immediate reaction which was a delighted yes.
Part of the reason was personal, as I explain in my acceptance speech.
The ceremony took place this Saturday, 21st September. With stormy and genuine applause, hundreds graduated at the Barbican. A tremendous range of students, young and middle-aged, white and black, and certainly women in equal numbers to men, were congratulated by the OU’s Chancellor, David Puttnam, who shook them by the hand with no bowing or scraping and a genuine appreciation of the effort they had made.
Beforehand, I’d learnt from the OU’s high-energy Vice-Chancellor, Martin Bean, how when he took on the job in 2009 his first task was to save even the possibility of part-time students having access to loans, without which the OU would have been crushed. He was bemused by the whole introduction of fees, which, bizarrely, may end up costing the government more than the previous system. He is now fighting an absurd restriction that forbids loans to students who want to take a degree equivalent to one they already have. So if someone with a BA in Economics wants to retrain for computer sciences they can’t get a loan. In an age where everyone calls for the need to change not to speak of a "flexible workforce"... England under the Coalition
The most striking and inspiring part of the day was the extraordinary sense of what I would call republican culture. The OU has a shared belief system, one that is open not hierarchical. They are about everyone having a chance to do their best and, just as important an experienced faculty and teaching system funded and dedicated to trying to ensure this happens. It's the biggest university in the country now, pioneering on-line teaching and with no sense of being inferior: an institution I am delighted to be associated with. It was a very happy event and shows that another country is possible.
This was what I said by way of acceptance:
Dear Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Dean, new graduates and guests. Thank you! Congratulations everyone!
I am no fan of honours in this country.
All too often they are part of a ‘system’, perhaps I should say ‘the system’, of official hypocrisy and servility. The Open University is different. From the start it has been infused with the spirit of citizenship - of the moral equality of all - as it sought to give everyone willing to make the effort the great opportunity of higher education.
How do I know this? There are many accounts of the rupture that can open within families as the first generation goes to university. I have never read one about how this gap can close when parents graduate. In the poverty of London’s East End my mother was forced to leave school at 14. She could not wait to enroll in the first six-year degree course offered by the OU after it began, in 1972. She was terrifically pleased with her degree in English literature. She made a new circle of friends. And I was delighted to discover thumbed copies of Raymond Williams’ books when I went round to her flat - and a person who was proud of herself for what she had achieved.
I admired the brilliant OU course books she showed me, and the care taken by your pioneering faculty to educate its students in a serious, unpatronising fashion. I felt it improved - indeed I was sure it did! - on my introduction to higher education at Cambridge. You new graduates are very fortunate to have benefited from what has become a wonderful tradition.
So I feel genuinely humbled to have been offered an honorary degree from the OU and I am delighted to accept it in the spirit of openness, as you have proclaimed it Dean, not privilege.
Especially because there are now new threats to openness thanks to the State’s exploitation of the internet, which threatens to place us all under total surveillance. Today, this too has become a focus for openDemocracy.
Finally, if I can, I would like to end by simply returning your compliment and dedicating my honorary degree to my mother and all who taught her!
Well done all of you new graduates! And Thank You!