I remember watching Open University videos in school. I remember that wonderful moment when you sensed the looming possibility of a total skive from actual school work, only to be clawing the walls with boredom half an hour later while some skinny beardy with a kipper tie and orange flares droned on about the fascinating chemical bonds in plastic.
Unfortunately, I think that image of the kipper tie hippy squad hangs about the Open University in a decidedly un-cool way. But the story of the OU is not boring. It’s one of revolution and it’s one which is particularly relevant in today’s political climate. The OU was founded on the belief that technology could bring learning to people who did not have the opportunity to attend a traditional university. In the 1960s the idea came to fruition when, under Harold Wilson, the Labour Party came to power. The OU was founded to tackle the continuing exclusion of people from higher education of people from lower income families. Sound familiar?
My experience of the OU started not long after I had completed my BSc in Biomedical science at Hull University. I’d done the BSc part-time, funded by the laboratory I worked for and then, after a bout of particularly bad clinical depression, I decided to try something I might enjoy more.
I’d always enjoyed writing and had dreamed of being a writer, but any career in the arts is a career of low income, and my non-academic, working class background led me to believe that that sort of career was a bad move. So I’d left school to be a secretary, which I hated with a passion, and then left that to be a shop worker, left that to be a factory worker and on and on, never feeling that I fitted in. I was quite bright but with very little self confidence.
I did a certificate in Natural Sciences with the OU first. It was just after I’d left my partner and moved back to my parents. It was a two fingered salute to a boyfriend who had treated me as stupid waste of space. I found it challenging. I’d chosen science because I remembered being quite good at it in school, and I thought a job in science probably paid well. The course came with numerous home experiments involving drying potatoes out in the oven to test their water content and gathering leaves for something I can’t quite recall. I also had a residential school in which I spent a week drunk as a skunk because I was far, far too shy to meet people otherwise. But I did get that certificate and it did lead to a job as a technician in the local path labs. The OU had already opened a door for me.
Doing that basic science course, and doing it in the psychological safety of my own home where I could take my time, gave me the confidence to accept a part-time Biomedical Science degree at Hull. That degree took four years and was at times extremely challenging. At the back of my mind I wondered if I had chosen the wrong career, but the working class girl in me was saying ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ and ‘science probably pays well’. I passed that degree. I was proud to pass it, having worked full time and not had much in the way of study time because the lab was chronically understaffed. But towards the end of the degree I was on the verge of a breakdown.
We’d been told that we couldn’t have children. It was like a bomb going off in my head. I lost confidence, became clinically depressed and felt like a failure. It took a long time to get better. In fact, it took years. But when I was able to function a little more I went back to that love of writing, love of reading, and signed up for a very short ‘access to poetry’ course. I loved it. It gave me a purpose. I was enjoying something for the first time in what felt like a very dark forever.
I decided to do another module, and crafted a hesitant plan for a degree in English Literature. It acted like a guide rope as my moods swung back and forth and the long journey through bi-polar, infertility and IVF took its toll. I had found my place with the course; something clicked and I had found my way with the poetry. I started reading again and the fire to be a writer was re-lit. This sounds melodramatic, but I genuinely believed that I had failed at everything in my life; that I was a failure as a woman, a failure as a wife, and a failure as a scientist.
When I say that the degree acted as a guide rope and gave me purpose, I really mean it. I never thought I would complete an entire degree. I couldn’t see the end of it. So I just kept plodding, kept handing in assignments and doing my homework, kept completing modules. While I was plodding on in one part of my life, the other elements were spinning wildly out of control.
My husband and I began IVF and the first cycle of ICSI was exhausting. But it worked and we were ecstatic. Then there was a suspected miscarriage and instead of slipping back into the dark, I clung onto the coursework. I completed an assignment while waiting to hear if we had lost the baby because in that world, the world of studying, everything was clean and straightforward and welcoming. We hadn’t lost the baby, not at that point. I carried on with the modules, I carried on with the work and when the pregnancy started to become complicated, I carried on.
When we lost Matilda, I couldn’t continue. I was sunk. But then, two days after returning home from the hospital, having left her in the mortuary, I realised I had an assignment deadline. I wasn’t sleeping, I was struggling after the c-section, and I was grieving for my daughter. So I rang the OU and asked about extenuating circumstances. They asked for details and I couldn’t bring myself to explain, couldn’t bring myself to talk because I wouldn’t have been able to stop crying. So I did the assignment. And started plodding forward, again, through another bout of extreme depression and grief.
I held onto that guide rope and kept going. It kept me going through a failed FET cycle, it kept me going through an eight week miscarriage. It kept me going through the three year investigation of the hospital which revealed that our daughter would have survived if mistakes hadn’t been made with our care. It kept me going and going and going. I went to an exam while having miscarriage number two, another eight week miscarriage. Admittedly, I didn’t do very well in the exam, but I’d done it, I hadn’t crumbled. And for the most part I did well. I did well in the writing, in the creative writing, in the parts of the course that I loved the most. And work that I produced was published and my skill as a writer grew, and that’s all thanks to the OU. My last module was advanced creative writing and the work that I produced in that course forms part of my next published pamphlet, Lapstrake, with Flarestack poets.
Some people make fun of graduation ceremonies, some people are too cool for them. But for people like me who would never have gone to university, who come from families where no one goes to university, graduation is something very special.
I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to study for my BSc with Hull, but the OU degree was something I went after and worked at and worked at and worked at. Through everything. That’s why my graduation was so important, and I loved every minute of it. When they asked us to stand up and receive a round of applause in recognition for working full time, managing families, going through so much trauma and still seeing the degree through, I cried. I cried three times during that ceremony. I cried when we were asked to applaud our families as recognition of their support. I cried again when, as I crossed the stage with the scroll holder in my hand, my husband, on his own in the gods, hollered “Well done, Wend!” and the Chancellor said “You’ve obviously got a lot of support here”. I replied, “No, my husband just has a really big gob”. But it meant the world to me – that someone was shouting for me, that someone was proud of me.
When it came time to hand in the final assignment, I was so sad. I think I actually grieved a little, but perhaps I was grieving for every fire I came through to get there. My graduation day was a true celebration of that too. And everyone was in the same boat, that feeling of having done it off our own backs, of battling through when we could have given up – it was inspirational.
So, what next? I applied to and was accepted on Manchester Metropolitan University‘s MA in Creative Writing, something I never imagined doing all those years ago when I was drying the hell out of potatoes in my oven.
The OU has an open admissions policy. You cannot get into it because of privilege, because of who you know, because of your ethnicity, your physical ability, your education. Everyone is equal when they apply. It is not a soft option; the assessment policy is ruthless and rigorous, the work is intense. But that’s what makes it so great, it is open to anyone who wants to better themselves, and I think that is absolutely amazing.
By Wendy Pratt
Wendy Pratt is a Yorkshire-based published poet and Northern Soul’s Poetry Correspondent