Higher education: an era of radical change?

As readers of this blog will know, I have taken the view for some time that there is room for a new university model within higher education. I am of course not alone in that view, nor is this second decade of the new millennium the only period in which such thoughts have been explored. I recently looked at some public lectures given in various universities in the 1940s, and one recurring theme – probably prompted in part by the re-thinking of pretty much everything at the end of World War 2 – was that universities needed and would experience radical change.

Predictions of a sweeping away of traditional higher education models have become commonplace. The most recent contribution to this genre has come from the UK think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research. In an essay (An Avalanche is Coming) published this month by the left-leaning Institute, the authors argue that we are about to face ‘an avalanche of change’ in higher education that may ‘sweep the system away.’ The growth of lifelong learning, the so-called MOOCs and the arrival of non-university competitors in higher education are amongst the developments the authors (led by Sir Michael Barber) believe will trigger this cataclysm. They fear that universities may be swept away because in the university system change has been too slow and incremental.

Leaving aside for a moment a tendency by the authors to nurture their snowy metaphor beyond what is serviceable, are they right in predicting this violent disturbance? The clue lies in part in how they interpret recent higher education history. The authors correctly describe a large number of important developments that have had an impact on higher education, but then seem to assume that these have not fundamentally altered the system. But their own metrics suggest otherwise. Numbers have exploded, research and publication has become pervasive, technology has changed pedagogy, economic development has influenced funding, and so forth.

Their case for the suggesting that nothing much has changed is based on their view that success in the system is one-dimensional: it is all about research outputs. The model for a successful university is Harvard (or maybe Oxbridge), and everyone is trying to the best of their ability to mimic the Harvard way, often inadequately. This, the authors suggest, is silly. Instead, they believe they can identify a coming taxonomy of higher education institutions, based on the idea that ‘distinctiveness matters’. There will be five university ‘models’: (1) the elite university; (2) the mass university; (3) the niche university; (4) the local university; and (5) the lifelong learning mechanism.

The essay does have a number of interesting insights, and is worth reading. But its five ‘models’ are not revolutionary – they (or something like them) are long in place, and it is not difficult to attach a model number to almost any existing university you might care to mention. The problem is that, as listed, they express a hierarchy, and indeed a hierarchy both of esteem and of resourcing. The trick in establishing a new higher education model that is not Harvard-like but is recognised as representing strong value and educational quality is to show it as exercising thought leadership. That is the essence of a different new university model.

Unlike the authors of this report, I don’t think there is an avalanche coming that is materially different from past changes, in the sense that fairly significant change has been a feature of higher education for the past four decades or more. I also suspect that some of the current ‘radical’ moves, including many of the MOOCs (a term that increasingly irritates me), will eventually flop because they lack a business case and because the pedagogy has not been as well thought out as some may think. But I do believe that there is scope for a radical new university model that can challenge the traditional elite. That is the quest I would like to be on.

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8 Comments on “Higher education: an era of radical change?”

  1. V.H Says:

    On the MOOC’s, I’ve done two. One with Coursera and one with Udacity. Both were outside my wheelhouse, Both were in that region beyond 2nd year.
    The Coursera was ten weeks, now out to fifteen on the 2nd run since they’ve identified the time cosh wasn’t the best notion. They were trying to make the on-line experience as near to that of the in-house as they could. Failing miserably in the process for they were only taking into account the issues from the point of view of the provider. They are also a bit too fixed on making certain the run of the course is limitless.
    Udacity is done in a different way. Better, in my opinion. Conceptually I’ve a goodish grip on basic statistics. But it too is flawed as it is expecting a ready availability of the materials needed to complete the course.
    The thing is though, if the existing system was doing it’s job there would be little need for this type of provision. You, up on the edge of the Highlands should have a better grip on the needful for distance learning. And since distance learning is mostly for older students it can easily be converted to lifelong learning too.
    On the others Elite, Mass et al. There it is simply forgotten that we’re dealing with a community. Where for the most part those entering are dictating what can be done. Ask yourself how many maths/physics/chem graduates are delivering education in your source schools and if the same conditions apply to the Russell group.

  2. no-name Says:

    “The trick in establishing a new higher education model that is not Harvard-like but is recognised as representing strong value and educational quality is to show it as exercising thought leadership.”

    This seems right, but in addition to being first among a peer group of institutions it is also necessary to have an impact on the thinking of the general public about the role for different sorts of institutions and for individuals to choose to subscribe to a member of one group or other on the basis of informed consideration.

    The status quo would be altered dramatically if it were an expectation of the public that most people in most jobs have formal education and training that lead to competence in those jobs. For some jobs, that education is likely to be very narrowly defined, and for others, very broadly. In a world in which people expect professionals (whether shop-minders, carpenters, medics, plumbers, chefs, lawyers, secretaries or whatever) to be competent and adaptable, a world very very distinct from the actual world, it is easier to see an esteemed role for the local university beside the elite. This means both that the general public needs to raise its expectations of those who provide services and that each individual must inspect and elevate her or his own performance.

    Arguably, in such a world, it is not necessary to “challenge the traditional elite” but to complement it. The elite challenge themselves. The way to get to the better world appears to be to challenge not “the traditional elite” but the general public.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    The fact that an essay like The Avalanche of Change might be produced by a ‘left-leaning Institute’, one that describes itself as a ‘progressive thinktank’ is very telling of the state of the ‘Left’ and of ‘progressive thought’ at the beginning of the 21st century, a matter whose discussion would go well beyond the scope of this comment. Still, if one had to describe the kind of progressivism that underpins the essay then one should not look any further than its literal meaning, (progressive: favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are). And this is exactly what the reader is presented with, a case for change. I have to hastily add that, in my opinion, very few people in HE would consider ‘doing nothing’ as a feasible course of action and, as today’s post has pointed out, the authors of the essay fail to consider how much the system has changed already. So, why do they suggest that nothing much has changed? This is certainly due the fact that they view success in the system as one-dimensional, as argued above, or one could speculated about the presence of some powerful economic interests behind such a passionate advocacy for change where private providers are often championed. Personally, I’d rather approach this from the standpoint of the ever popular rhetoric of ‘disruption’, the scenario of gloom which can only be avoided if a ‘certain’ type of change is put in place. In his To Save Every¬thing, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism 2013 the technology writer E. Morozov warns us against a sort of self-defeatist, fatalistic acceptance which would make us abandon the possibility of having any say in the forces shaping the societies in which we live. Once the need for change is asserted and the gloomy scenario set, then the next stage is to propose a solution, this is for Morozov the ‘solutionism’ strategy: the recasting of social situations as problems with definite solutions; processes to be optimized. Technology is at the core of solutionism, a sort of Silicon Valley ideology, whose followers include the Valley’s software iThe insistence on “disrupting” our social lives; the idea that the solutions inspired by and enabled by the Internet mark a clean break from historical pat¬terns, a never-before-seen opportunity. In this context it is not at all strange that the essay mentions the ‘University of Heroes, ‘where students aged 18-26 discussed the future instead of history’(p,35)’, discussing history might disrupt the ‘disrupting narrative’. Also, it is interesting that the report asks universities to assess whether the education they provide ‘is a good preparation for citizenship in the 21st century’, in fact the view of society that would emerge from some of the proposed changes to our educational establishments is of an institution-free net¬work of autonomous, entrepreneurial individuals practicing free exchange, besides who needs lecturers anymore if Michael, we are told, can recall the names of the Karamazov brothers within minutes by ‘clicking’ it. Content is ubiquitous!

  4. no-name Says:

    I’ve met Michael many times in a high street shop, someone whose answer to the question “do you stock this?”, asked in person in the shop, is an imbecilic “just check online”. I wonder instead why the shop employs Michael.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    This blog post is a very useful compendium of: “What’s the Matter with MOOCs: A Critical Conversation”. Some of the readers of this blog might find it useful:

    • V.H Says:

      You don’t have a feeling this person is grinding a porcellanite axe since it seems the flaking of flint would be seen as neo-liberal.

  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    Yes, I know what you mean, and agree, still I find it useful to circulate in order to counterbalance current over-enthusiastic discussions on MOOCs and the impact of technology on learning in general. We do need to retain and exercise a critical stance, hopefully by doing that we’ll reach a less radical and more balanced approach. Following the latest (technological) fad is always ill advised, particularly so when it comes to HE, the consequences in this case could be really dire…

  7. moocstudent Says:

    I start my first Coursera MOOC on 25th March. You can follow my journey at: http://moocstudent.wordpress.com/ if you wish. I have a BSc, MSc and PhD and wasn’t born yesterday but I enjoy learning as much as I enjoy teaching (on-campus and distance learning modes) and research so why not? I don’t see it as a threat but as an opportunity. My mind is open.

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