Leader: Don't drive people to MP3 for HE

Hard times are no excuse to restrict access and leave many to experience higher education only through downloads

September 24, 2009

What are universities for? The pursuit of knowledge and research for its own sake or for training the workforce to meet economic challenges? It's a question we never seem to answer definitively, probably because most UK institutions do a bit of both. What everyone does agree on, however, is the transformative power of knowledge, on individuals and on society.

But how do we deliver that experience to the masses? The Confederation of British Industry's task force on higher education does not think we should. It wants to cut grants, raise tuition fees, increase loan rates and ditch the 50 per cent participation target. In a downturn, it says, taxpayers cannot afford the system we have, and what we need now is not quantity but rather quality - specifically, those nice STEM students who are useful to companies' bottom lines, please. Of course, the CBI's report adds, when we come out of recession and can afford it, all those other types can have their chance to go to university.

Sam Laidlaw, the task force's chairman and chief executive of Centrica, says "it is the least-worst solution in difficult times". Is it really?

How does dropping the 50 per cent target make sense if we are to compete against other knowledge-based economies, especially those with participation targets far higher than ours? They are not cutting back. How long will it take us to catch up when the recovery begins?

Knowledge is power, both intellectually and economically, and like a box of Quality Street, it's for sharing. But how do we spread it if not through teaching young people at university?

In an echo of the open-source and open-access movements, universities are making thousands of hours of course and lecture content available online for free. Advocates of these open educational resources believe that this content has already been paid for by taxpayers and so should be freely shared.

One way to reach a reported 50 million potential users is through iTunes U, the website that hosts free educational media. Many UK universities are having great success with iTunes U. The University of Oxford's Philosophy for Beginners and The Open University's Astronomy courses feature among the top ten most popular downloads, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Physics 1: Classical Mechanics. Such offerings underline why Apple, which owns the site, markets it as "the world's smartest download".

Putting lectures on iTunes U has certainly paid off for the OU. Since June last year, it has registered 6,664,400 downloads. Fears that it would damage its core business with this move have proved groundless. The downloads give just a taste of the delights on offer, and almost one in nine users goes on to visit the OU website. MIT, the trailblazer in open educational resources, gives away access to entire courses.

Placing their efforts in such a public domain certainly makes lecturers think harder about delivery. "Once you've made a lecture public, you can't just give the same lecture next year," says Oxford's Stuart Lee, whose lectures on medieval English have made him an iTunes star.

But will making material available online encourage students to skip lectures? Does it matter as long as they acquire information? Most importantly, say some, downloads must not be seen as a substitute for undergraduate education. Sadly for many, it may have to be.


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