Susan (who initially calls herself Rita) (Julie Walters), a 26-year-old Liverpudlian working-class hairdresser, is dissatisfied with the routine of her work and social life; she is reluctant to have a child, fearing it will permanently tie her to the same monotonous routine for life, and she yearns to escape to something more profound, without exactly knowing what that is. She seeks to better herself by signing up for and attending an Open University course in English 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. Frank is impressed by Susan's verve and earnestness and is forced to re-examine his attitudes and position in life; Susan finds Frank's tutelage opens doors to a bohemian lifestyle and a new self-confidence. However, Frank's bitterness and cynicism return as he notices Susan beginning to adopt the pretensions of the university culture he despises. Susan becomes disillusioned by a friend's attempted suicide and realises that her new social niche is rife with the same dishonesty and superficiality she had previously sought to escape. The film ends as Frank, sent to Australia on a sabbatical, welcomes the possibilities of the change.