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Insider knowledge

While the literal meaning of utopia is ‘no place’, an OU-topia could be almost any place. Even when physically isolated, an Open University student, engaged in studying, could be part of a ‘public’, involved in learning through dialogue. 

Dan Weinbren
10 March 2014

In Britain, the Open University’s dispatch of centrally-produced teaching texts to students, including correspondence materials, home experiment kits, television broadcasts, and, latterly, web pages, looks like top-down information dispersal. However, its texts can be read in many ways. As Barthes noted in 1967, ‘a text does not release ‘a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but is a space of many dimensions’.

A ‘public’, Michael Warner argued, is formed when texts (in the broadest sense) circulate among strangers and enable those people, through those texts, to organize together and to have experiences in common. Students can take Open University (OU) texts and, perhaps because many of them have little experience of formal educational conventions, develop their own publics.

One remarkable example of this can be found in Northern Ireland, where in the year that the OU opened to students, 1971, internment without trial was introduced. Within four years almost 2,000 people had been interned. They were not treated as other prisoners. They maintained their own structures within the gaol. Their Officers Commanding dealt directly with the prison authorities. In 1972, trials started to take place in jury-less courts in front of a judge and by 1975 the prison population had quadrupled over five years.

In 1973 some of the prisoners began to study with the OU, finding within a prison a space for themselves which was beyond their day-to-day reality.  Michel Foucault has written about a ‘place which lies outside all places and yet is localizable’ which is both isolated and penetrable, a ‘heterotopia’, citing a prison as an example of such a location. Students, he thought, could create a lecture theatre or seminar room, juxtaposing ‘in a single real space, several spaces, several sites which are themselves incompatible’. Heterotopias were not utopias, but ‘other places’ in which existing arrangements were ‘represented, contested and inverted’, where individuals could be apart from the larger social group.

Some of these political prisoners took control of their own learning, making the OU materials their own. When it was decided that those sentenced after 1976 should not be granted ‘political’ status there was a ‘dirty protest’ and a hunger strike by prisoners. Those who protested were not permitted to sit together or hold classes. They shared information by shouting, which had a levelling effect. Even after the protests were concluded, there was no return to a hierarchical educational system where one person was the authority.

Those who received OU teaching materials used them not only to learn for themselves, but to study with other prisoners. Debates and classes were arranged so as to encourage discussion and active learning. People shared texts derived from a university which was financed by the government which had ordered them to be detained and through those texts, organized together and created new experiences in common.

As it happened, Gerald Gardiner, the Chancellor of the Open University in the years from 1973 - 1978, chaired a committee on Northern Ireland which approved the continuation of detention without trial. The IRA attempted to kill Gardiner. However, imprisoned supporters of the organisation continued to study with the OU.

A study concluded that the prisoners were keen ‘to move away from the hierarchical notions of knowing teacher and passive students’ and that they felt that ‘reading and studying in jail involved self-improvement overlaid with political commitment’. There was particular interest in OU modules which drew on the work of the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, notably Education for adults. He proposed that much education reinforced existing social relations by encouraging the teacher to ‘fill students with the content of his narration’. He sought to develop critical consciousness and dialogue, arguing that, ‘through learning [people] can make and remake themselves’. In 1973, the OU awarded Freire an honorary doctorate at its first OU Degree ceremony.

Laurence McKeown, who spent 16 years in a prison in Northern Ireland, felt Friere’s notions of non-hierarchical, dialogue-based, education were ‘absolutely brilliant’. Another hunger striker, Jackie McMullan, was ‘exhilarated’ by the idea of education as a revolutionary force and Patrick Magee, who wrote a PhD while in prison, argued that ‘there was an element of personal development in education in jail. You worked to be able to articulate better your political perspective and I saw education as a means to an end’.

McKeown recalled an example of peer learning. The OU’s Changing Experience of Women module, which was on offer in the period 1983-1991, drew on Friere’s ideas. The formation of self-help groups was encouraged, as was the view of staff as resources rather than as pedagogues. The material was designed to be tested against learners’ experiences so that (as one of authors of the material said) students ‘value each other’s experience and examine it supportively’. In one Northern Ireland prison, ‘over 200 men took part in the women’s studies class over a two-year period’, supported by an OU tutor.

OU tutors were urged not to concentrate on imparting the canon of accepted knowledge but to motivate students to question the assumption that there was an accepted body of theoretical knowledge about which they need to learn. McKeown’s felt that ‘what came out of the course in general was that men became aware of the power they held. Power they held over their female relatives and loved ones [and] over women in general’. The tutor who assessed McKeown’s double assignment recalled that it was, ‘an essay full of feminist insights’.

The experience of being students provided the prisoners with opportunities to gain in self-confidence and self-belief. It enabled them to hold a mirror up to the mainstream and recognise the ways in which the social order could be made and remade. It helped some of them to emerge into positions of community leadership and to promote politically stable structures. The Times Higher acknowledged this when it referred to ‘the extraordinary role of Open University degrees in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland’. 

R. Barthes, ‘The death of the author’ Aspen, 5-6 (Fall/Winter 1967)

M. Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16 (Spring 1986), 22-7.

P. Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed (1968, translated 1970)

M. Warner, ‘Publics and counterpublics’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 88: 4 (November 2002) 413-25.


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