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.