Competition's bleeding edge

March 8, 1996

The benefits of information technologies are being distorted by crude market values that will damage academic culture, David Allen and Tom Wilson argue.

We are told that the use of information technology will not only turn higher education institutions into more "efficient" and "effective" institutions enabling them to compete in the market, but will also transform the educational process beyond all recognition.

Virtual libraries, courses taught entirely over the Internet, the creation of virtual universities in "cyberspace", the replacement of librarians and computer centres by "cybrarians" and information managers are dangled before us as the one and only future. The message is that those institutions that fail to change will be no longer be able to compete, and will not survive.

We believe that this view is, at least, misguided and, at worst, naive and dangerous. The teaching and learning experience will definitely change in all higher education institutions, and in some institutions it will be transformed, but the transformative experience will be the exception, rather than the norm.

However, if the idea is accepted (and who wants to be left behind?), it will become a reality, with disastrous implications for the higher education system in the United Kingdom.

We argue that IT should be used to develop the higher education network in the UK, to support the existing expertise in higher education institutions, to improve the quality and increase the depth of the teaching and learning experience in higher education institutions as well as its breadth.

IT alone cannot and will not gain an institution sustainable competitive advantage. The key distinguishing elements of the higher education institutions' environment are (up to now) the free exchange of information and a useful tension between the identification of members of the organisation with a discipline or professional group and their identification with the institution.

Service professionals, for example, often have more in common, culturally, with members of their own profession in other institutions than with academics in their own university. Concepts and best practice may be passed freely within a profession through informal networks and through formal networks such as the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries or the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association.

Thus any successful application of IT, which might give an institution some competitive advantage, stands a high chance of being known about and copied. Such an application might gain the higher education institutions temporary advantage, but possibly at greater cost through being at the "leading edge".

However, such developments also raise the entry costs for institutions that wish to compete on a market basis.

To "compete in the market" higher education institutions will have to achieve certain levels of IT infrastructure and to be able to afford to buy appropriate electronic information. Already, it can be argued that higher education institutions that cannot guarantee students 24-hour access to PCs are at a competitive disadvantage, as are the small number of higher education institutions that cannot afford to pay for electronic information sources such as the BIDS bibliographic databases. We do not expect electronic information to replace paper-based information resources for teaching and learning, at least in the short term: for some time to come such information is likely to aid the discovery of print resources and electronic documents that complement print.

This raising of technological standards could lead to the formation of "mega" universities playing a game of IT poker for ever increasing stakes. The only institutions that will gain from this will be the larger higher education institutions (such as those in the Russell Group) that can afford to play in the game for longer.

If institutions wish to gain competitive advantage they can only do so by undermining the ethos of inter-organisational cooperation and free distribution of information. Already, some institutions are attempting to do this by restricting the flow of information of a potentially "competitive" nature, such as news of research grants won, outside their institution.

Others are redesigning their organisational structures and cultures and then using IT to leverage this organisational change in an attempt to gain competitive advantage. For example, one new entrant to the mass education market in the UK, De Montfort University, has a "unique" organisational culture and structure, more akin to that of manufacturing industry than a HEI, which it is leveraging using IT towards its strategic goal of domination of the UK's mass education market. De Montfort seems to be using networks to "virtually fold space" and link its geographically dispersed campuses. It seems to have quite clearly identified and understood its potential customers and their information needs and to have seen IT as one key weapon in the fight for its target customer.

No doubt a number of higher education institutions may go the same route to an ultimate form of cost-effective mass education. However, most students believe that, while electronic interaction has its place, they gain more from the physical face-to-face communication with human lecturers. Moreover, they (or their parents) seem prepared to pay for that privilege through taxation. The vision of thousands of student working away in their cell-like study bedrooms taking their virtual courses using their virtual library communicating with their virtual cybrarian has more to do with a nightmarish cyberpunk view of the near future than any desired reality. Electronic document supply and network learning will have a place in most universities - but it must be seen in perspective.

While electronic journals proliferate, while access to electronic copies of Government or European Commission documents may be extremely useful to the student, and while the electronic textbook may be becoming a reality, there is a definite question mark against the idea that academics will welcome marking electronic essays.

We cannot yet know either the possibilities of electronic documents or the future role of the World Wide Web and until the way ahead is clearer, with a proper understanding of the resource implications, we would be wise not to be overwhelmed by the hyperbole of the enthusiast for technology.

Although no higher education institutions in the UK has failed yet, some smaller colleges have merged with larger neighbours, and many are feeling the cold winds of the IT "revolution". Many colleges of higher education are now awakening to that the fact that their under-investment in IT, in comparison to their larger neighbours, now puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Many of the smaller higher education institutions are unable to consider even the modest costs of the available electronic bibliographic data sets, let alone the cost of the IT infrastructure to access this information.

One of the key questions hanging over higher education institutions is the question of resourcing IT expansion. The equation here is simple: (larger numbers of students without adequate provision of resources to fund this growth) + (exponentially growing desire for expensive IT resources) + (exponentially growing need for information resources) = (increasingly sophisticated ways of stretching limited resources) or (collapse). In light of this equation the argument that the problems higher education institutions currently face can be "solved" solely by investment in IT seems almost farcical.

Most higher education institutions have yet to come to terms with the extent to which IT, its maintenance and servicing, and the associated training costs will dominate their budgets over the next ten years, if they are to go down the path of creating the computer-based university.

Competition within the sector is now being mirrored within many higher education institutions: as the internal resource cake gets smaller, functions of the university are being forced to fight each other for slices as they strive to maintain the quantity and quality of their separate services.

What happens to the quality of the learning experience of the student in these circumstances, and how will IT improve that experience without equal attention (and resource allocation) to the other factors in the production of academic excellence?

IT can be a useful tool, and it should be applied as a tool, not as a patch to paste over the cracks in the creaking infrastructure of higher education in the UK. There are no simple solutions to the problems facing higher education institutions, no quick fixes or recipes to solve the ills of declining resource bases, increasing student numbers and the growing costs of information. What is need is managed collaborative development, controlled competition and an adequately funded higher education institutions network. Then and only then will the necessary diversity in the UK higher education institutions sector be maintained.

The lip service paid by John Major and other Conservative politicians to their commitment to education is bogus so long as resources are diverted to underwriting tax cuts.

David Allen and Tom Wilson are, respectively, lecturer in information systems and professor and head of department, department of information studies, University of Sheffield.

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