A brand new face for the global marketplace

January 28, 2000

Some trends that will shape the 21st-century university are already visible and it is on these that the Department of Trade and Industry Foresight task force on learning in 2020 (page 17) will base its work. These trends include: many more students worldwide, growing demand for distance learning and more cross-border study to meet personal and national economic demands. How these demands will be met is less clear. New technology and new organisations are opening up options, and universities are under threat from competitors.

This is forcing a re-examination not only of universities' organisation and structure, but also of their essential purposes. What can be changed and what must be conserved? Is small-group or one-to-one teaching for a future elite desirable or defensible in a mass system? Is it appropriate only for graduate schools and research institutes? As new technology transforms teaching, will open, flexible, web-type models prevail or will developments be based on digital technologies that are more readily controlled and more easily charged for? Is distance learning suitable only for vocational updating and upskilling packages while the less easily packaged characteristics of higher education - curiosity, imagination, experimentation - continue to depend on face-to-face interaction?

University managers with books to balance will see the advantage of joining what promises to be a large and lucrative market, particularly when greater student numbers cannot be expected to bring commensurate increases in public funding. But even setting up the organisation that will exploit these opportunities is contentious. Academic staff - concerned about open inquiry, critical analysis and the exchange of ideas - may regard such commercialism as inappropriate. And many businesses have already found that the web means price competition and price cuts - universities cannot be sure that they will be immune from this pressure.

Conflict can be expected over such matters as control of intellectual property and the nature of the academic contract, issues now surfacing, for example, in the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers' proposed new licence (page 6) and Nottingham University's law suit against Simon Fishel in the High Court (page 4).

There is another prediction that offers some comfort. A big increase in the diversity of courses demanded is likely. But, as Naomi Klein argues in No Logo (HarperCollins, Pounds 14.99), global companies are not in the business of diversity; they live by economies of scale. Universities, conversely, are craft businesses. Some may operate globally in research, but many concentrate on teaching expertise with a local spin. The future may lie with those who can customise their offerings.

This raises the issue of credibility. At present it seems obvious that old, established universities have the world brands that everyone wants on their degree certificate and that global businesses will want to ally with them. But new brands - Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo - can be established remarkably rapidly. Education may not be so different.

This makes the United Kingdom government's initiative through the British Council to establish a UK higher education brand (riding on the prestige of long established names) particularly interesting. Such a brand could allow for diversity while students and employers are reassured that a certificate from a less aspirational college is of roughly equivalent value to one from a university of world renown. But the mechanism required to make this work is proving cumbersome, as the travails with the Quality Assurance Agency show.

It remains to be seen whether attempts at national standardisation will be effective in a world market thronged with competitors, or whether they will hamper universities in their own efforts to respond rapidly.

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