“How many university professors does it take to change a light bulb?”
This old joke about academia’s supposed resistance to the new has been told many times on campus, relying on the amusing image of a fusty scholar horrified at the prospect of having to change even the smallest thing.
Some might argue that this idea of the university professor – even at some of the UK’s most traditional universities – is an obsolete cliché from the pages of Tom Sharpe or P.G. Wodehouse. Far from being unworldly and secluded from the new, today’s academics have shown an appetite to move with the times, whether it is uploading lecture slides or recordings to their institution’s virtual learning environment (VLE), blogging about their latest research or ditching lectures to provide more “flipped” learning in small groups.
But the pace of change is still too slow, others claim. The huge physical infrastructure of a university and entrenched patterns of working mean that higher education cannot adapt quickly enough to the demands of students in the 21st century, even if they really wanted to (which they don’t), such critics would argue.
Why, for instance, do universities still follow the three-term cycle used in medieval times?
Back then, the long summer break was vital because it allowed students to help bring in the harvest before returning to their studies. Why should the UK – and indeed global – academic calendar still be set according to the demands of 16th-century agrarian Britain?
With academics happy to preserve the status quo, it is down to new providers to offer the radical change that students want and require, argue many observers in this week’s feature on new institutions, which reflects on the host of challenges involved in founding a new university.
New universities across the world are allowing people to spend more time studying throughout the year, compressing a four-year degree into three years. Others are embracing innovative methods of learning – both online and offline, such as group-based project work – instead of the traditional lecture.
Still others, such as the New College of the Humanities, believe that they can charge higher fees – £12,000 a year for domestic students – by offering a more intense academic experience, complete with Oxbridge-style one-to-one tutorials and weekly essays, even if their students do not have the same access to the sports centres and multimillion-pound buildings found in older institutions.
In India, where half the country’s 1 billion inhabitants are under the age of 25, some institutions are positioning themselves to capitalise on an extraordinary baby boom. New institutions linked to industry, but borrowing heavily from tried and tested methods of US liberal arts education, believe that they can attract the brightest and best, young people who have historically gone to an elite technology institute or to a top US institution.
In the Middle East, plunging oil prices have forced families to look at education closer to home, with innovative practice and partnerships with leading UK universities offering an attractive alternative to expensive overseas study.
The popularity of these new institutions has yet to be fully quantified. Many students will always prefer a more traditional form of higher education, particularly if it is provided by a university with a reputation burnished over decades, even centuries.
Yet even the most august places are moving with the times. Universities are adapting their IT infrastructure, buildings and teaching, even if some contend that lessons remain remarkably similar to those delivered 20 or 30 years ago. The fuddy-duddy professor hopelessly out of touch with the cutting edge is a self-serving myth peddled by those keen to turn higher education in a marketised commodity that it should never become, critics will say.
With the UK government keen to bring more high-quality alternative providers into the sector – despite student numbers set to fall in coming years – it will be fascinating to see if these new kids on the block can provide genuine competition to the established elite and become the catalyst for more far-reaching change across the entire sector.
Jack Grove investigates these issues in a feature to be published in Times Higher Education on Thursday 6 April.