A Liverpudlian working-class young woman – hairdresser – Rita (Julie Walters) wants to better herself by studying literature. Her assigned Open University professor, Frank Bryant (Michael Caine), however, has long ago openly taken to the bottle, and soon develops misgivings about Rita's ability to adapt to student culture. Bryant is a jaded university lecturer, who describes his occupational ability as "appalling but good enough for his appalling students". His passion for literature is reignited by Rita, whose technical ability for the subject is limited by her lack of education but whose enthusiasm Frank finds refreshing.
To illustrate the rhyming principle of assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, Dr. Bryant gives as an example the words 'swans' and 'stones' from W B Yeats's The Wild Swans at Coole. This is instead an example of consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds. However, in a scene just before Rita meets Dr. Bryant, some students mockingly observe, "He doesn't even know what assonance means!", confirming that it is Dr. Bryant's mistake, not the film's. In an ensuing discussion between Dr. Bryant and Rita, he asks her whether she understands assonance. Rita replies, "Yeah, it means you've got the rhyme wrong."