Brought into existence by Royal Charter in April 1969, the Open University is a unique academic institution in Britain: a government-funded place of higher education where almost all the courses are run on a correspondence basis. Admission is generally available to anyone with a basic level of education and courses are run on an open-ended modular system, which allows students to select modules to fit in with their lifestyles. Credits for completed modules remain indefinitely and many people take courses only sporadically.

Although in theory it would be possible to complete a degree course from the OU in the same length of time as at a traditional university, most people take between 5-7 years, with it not being uncommon for occasional learners to take a decade or more to get their degree. Consistently placed among the top quartile of British universities, a degree or post-degree award from the OU is a worldwide recognised qualification, usually made all the more valuable due to the fact that most OU students are studying because they want to, rather than because that's what they ought to do.

Course material was originally distributed by post and lectures broadcast on national radio, and soon after the BBC2 television channel started showing lectures and programmes for study. These were usually broadcast either very early in the morning or late at night, so that people could fit them in with their working day. Today, with the widespread uptake of VCRs the TV programmes are usually broadcast in the small hours of the night, and more and more students are using the internet to receive and send work.

The OU is now by far and away the largest university in the UK: there are well over 200,000 men and women studying with it, mostly for Bachelor's or Master's degrees. Additionally the University is now recognised as a centre for research, with its originally small site in Milton Keynes becoming a top ranking academic institution in its own right.

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