Turn on your radio or television early in the morning here, and you are likely to be greeted by a lecture on thermodynamics, medieval history or the social views of 19th-century Russian novelists.

This is the Open University, which projects the classroom into the homes of some 60,000 British teachers, engineers, workers and housewives.

Begun by the Labor government a few years ago, it is based on the notion that higher education in Britain, traditionally reserved for a relatively small intellectual or social elite, ought to be available to citizens regardless of age, income or background.

The experiment is being copied in the United States by such institutions as the University of Maryland, the University of Houston and the Univesity of Southern Illinois. An estimated 3,000 American students are enrolled in a similar program in four states.

As it functions here, the Open University is far more complicated than merely broadcasting talks by professors to auditors. On the contrary, a large and complex organization is involved in the operation.

In addition to watching or listening to radio or televised lectures, students can take correspondence courses or meet with part-time tutors at some 300 special centers throughout the country.

The Open University has become so popular that nearly half of the 50,000 people who apply for entrance every year are rejected. Since the operation is liberally endowed by the government, however, the tuition is low. A student, it is reckoned, can obtain a degree for a total outlay of no more than $700.

The real obstacle is time. To win a degree requires about 2,400 hours of study. And even though the curriculum is usually spread out over six years, this requires a good deal of dedication, since the majority of the students are either running homes and caring for children or working elsewhere.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the drop-out rate is relatively high. Of every five students admitted, two persist long enough to get degrees. A great many others collect course credits.

The founders of the Open University are somewhate disappointed by the students they have attracted. Hoping to appeal to people with little schooling, they have instead, tended to get rather well-educated candidates whose objective is to raise their qualifications.

The largest category of those taking Open University courses are school-teachers, who are automatically eligible for higher salaries if they earn advanced degrees. The rest of the students include scientists, engineers, housewives and technicians of various kinds. About 20 per cent are over 50 years old.

Clearly, the experiment has broadened educational opportunities in Britain. A larger proportion of students with working-class backgrounds are in the Open University than in conventional institutions of higher lerning. Besides, the Open University services prisoners in jails as well as the handicapped confined to their homes.

It is probably still too early to measure how successful the Open University has been in helping its graduates find jobs, especially since unemployment is high. From the start, however, it has taken care to keep up its standars so that its degrees would carry weight.

Sir Walter Perry, the head of the Open University, is a distinguished academic figure with doctorates in medicine and science from the University of St. Andrew in Scotland. The faculty of 250 is also of high calibre.

Given the georgraphical spread of its students and the disparity in their levels, the Open University has had to pioneer a new sort of educational technology. It has developed its own textbooks as well as special kits for science students using their homes as laboratories, and it grades examination papers by computer.

This somewhat packaged approach to education has meant that the Open University is designed to cope with the average student rather than encourage exceptional ones of the kind that attend the great British institutions. So its degree may be lacking in prestige.

But the Open University is here to stay, and testimony to its acceptance lies in the fact that, although it was created by the Labor Party as an exercise in egalitarianism, it is supported by the Conservatives, who believe that individuals ought to rise through their own efforts. Thus it has transcended ideology - a tribute to its usefulness.