Access and the avalanche

Conor Ryan considers a new report suggesting that the days of many traditional universities are numbered in the face of online and mass delivery challenges.

In 1926, John Clarke Stobart, the classical scholar and Children’s Hour creator who was also the first BBC Director of Education, had the idea that there might be a ‘wireless university’, bringing learning to the masses in a way that traditional universities, then the preserve of a small elite, could not achieve. What followed was rather less ambitious: a series of 25 minute talks supplemented by study aid pamphlets.

It would be another four decades before Jennie Lee started to develop her ideas for what would become the Open University in 1969.   Those of us old enough to remember the late night OU broadcasts will forever have the image of the typical OU lecture from the 1970s imprinted on our minds.

Nevertheless, despite an initial lack of technical sophistication, the Open University helped over 1.6 million people to gain a higher education. More recently, it has embraced the Internet with the enthusiasm due to a medium well suited to its ambitious approach to access, and it now boasts some 250,000 students worldwide with 1200 academic staff and 7000 tutors.  Its model of delivery has been picked up across the world, not least in fast-growing large nations like India and China.

Reading the fascinating new report from Michael Barber and his colleagues for the IPPR this week, one couldn’t help but think of the profound changes that the Open University made in providing access to higher education for many people, initially on TV and latterly via the Internet.

At the same time, the model did not prove as disruptive as it might have to traditional universities which now educate nearly half the young adult population in ways not so different from the approach taken when J C Stobart was expounding his Reithian mission. Nor, despite its often impressive academic credentials, has it managed to challenge the grip of the elite universities in the UK.

Barber and his colleagues argue persuasively that an ‘avalanche’ is coming in higher education which will completely transform the delivery and – in many respects – the nature of higher education. They say all universities face key challenges including the traditional degree structure, the need for specialisation, their links to employability and a devaluing of the worth of an ordinary primary degree.

Of course, we have had some false starts before. I remember all too well what happened to the ill-fated e-university initiative, a construct that was perhaps too premature. Yet, with the growth of Massive Open Online Courses – bearing the unattractive acronym of MOOCs – the world could potentially become a smaller place for students. A relatively small but growing number of UK students now prefer to study in the US – some with the support of Sutton Trust summer schools.

But some US universities including Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, using the EdX platform, are putting many courses and lectures online, opening them up to mass audiences. In developing countries, online may be the only way to achieve mass higher education, but how much will it affect tradition universities in developed nations?

Barber et al argue that it will require universities to adopt one of five models: the elite, the mass, the niche, the local or the lifelong learning. That may well be true. Equally, they point to the impact of rising fees on students as consumers, and their rising expectations as a result. Students may start to demand more contact time and fewer enforced holidays.

Already there are concerns that few students complete MOOC courses, with dropout rates as high as 90 per cent, though that could also reflect differing motivations for signing up.  It may well be that students without a higher education tradition at home are the least likely to be able to sustain such course options. However, universities cannot afford to be complacent, and must acquire far more flexibility in their approach if they are to remain relevant in this brave new world, both in their traditional and online delivery.

Universities will have to make the case for an experience that is collaborative, and which opens students up to networks that still feel more real than the social media alternatives that are supposed to act as substitutes. As importantly, they will need to show that they are delivering it.

Of course, that may mean new ways of doing things. Warwick University, which ran some excellent summer schools for gifted and talented school students in the first decade of this century, has recently created a new online network – IGGY  – that it wants to blend with face-to-face activities and use that as a way to encourage able students of all backgrounds to network.

Whatever the mode of delivery, access will surely be as important an issue to all the new types of university as it is to traditional institutions. MOOCs must not become the poor man or woman’s alternative to a place at Harvard or Cambridge, which seem unlikely to forfeit their prestige or their role in developing leaders in all fields. Unless we are careful, there is a real danger they will do so.

If elite institutions are here to stay, as Barber et al believe they are, new levels of global competition for talent will make it more important than ever to harness brainpower from the whole of society, not just a narrow elite. That social mobility challenge seems no more destined to disappear than the great universities of the world and their formidable brands.

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