Oxford academics launch world’s first ‘blockchain university’

Woolf University aims to charge $57,600 (£41,462) for its first degrees

March 22, 2018
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The blockchain university will be like ‘Uber for students, Airbnb for ­academics’

A group of University of Oxford academics have launched the world’s first “blockchain university”, an Oxbridge-style institution that they describe as “Uber for students, Airbnb for academics”.

Woolf University will not have a physical campus and will instead be based around an app that allows academics to advertise their expertise to prospective students, who can in turn select modules to suit their needs and interests. Blockchain, the increasingly popular digital ledger, will be used to regulate contracts and payments and also to record academic achievement.

In time, students would be able to acquire credits towards undergraduate degrees, which would be placed on the blockchain and which are likely to be accredited by traditional higher education institutions in the first instance.

Joshua Broggi, Woolf’s director and a junior research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, said that the aim was to allow academics to take control of their employment and to lower tuition fees for students.

“The advantage of working with blockchain is that we can automate a range of administrative procedures and reduce overhead costs,” he told Times Higher Education. “A second advantage is that you can have a decentralised, autonomous organisation in which people have security with respect to their contracts.

“Our ultimate aim is for this to be a driver of job opportunities and security for academics, as well as a low-cost alternative for students.”

Woolf aims to organise itself around the Oxbridge collegiate model, according to its founders, who have stipulated that 80 per cent of the faculty members in the first five colleges should hold doctorates from universities in the top 200 of the THE World University Rankings.

The first college, Ambrose College, will be formed by 30 academics, primarily current or former Oxford staff, or Oxford alumni. Tuition will be delivered via one-to-one or one-to-two tutorials and lectures, like at Oxford, conducted via Skype or similar platforms, or in person, with students expected to write two essays a week for three years.

A minimum cost of $150 (£108) per student, per tutorial will be set across the university, but it is planned that Ambrose will charge $400 per tutorial, giving an annual cost to students – for two tutorials a week, eight weeks a term, three terms a year – of $19,200.

One a one-to-one basis, this would promise an annual income of $38,400 for four tutorial hours a week, or $76,800 for eight hours.

Woolf says that, to compete in the UK, it might offer one-to-two tutorials at a cost of $250 per student, resulting in an annual fee of $12,000 per student – cheaper than a typical UK university degree – and an income for academics of between $48,000 and $96,000.

Each college would be able to set its own admission requirements, but, at Ambrose, an interview system like that used at Oxford will be utilised. As the project develops, academics would be able to join Woolf and form their own colleges, providing they meet minimum criteria.

Jonathan Duquette, an academic adviser for Woolf who is also a research fellow at Wolfson College, said that “in the very beginning what we will be offering is a series of classes for students at existing institutions to come and have an experience with us as Oxford academics”.

“Hopefully in time, Woolf University itself will gain in prestige, and we hope that in 10 years from now a qualification from our university is enough to be formally recognised,” he said.

Mike Sharples, emeritus professor of educational technology at the Open University, said that quality assurance would be a key challenge for the new institution. Although blockchain can assure that an interaction has taken place between two parties, it “cannot assure quality”, he said.

However, Professor Sharples offered his best wishes to the founders. “They’re trying out a new approach to higher education, and just like other sectors such as music have been disrupted, it’s really time that higher education was disrupted in a positive way,” he said.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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