Alison Wolf

September 30, 2005

Learning in the 21st century was predicted to change radically, but students still want the age-old university model

It is always fascinating to read earlier writers' predictions and compare them with what actually happened. It underlines how near-impossible the whole enterprise is. Readers of classic science fiction treasure galactic explorers who use slide rules, and I am old enough to remember being promised robots to do my housework some time around now.

In 1991, Sir Douglas Hague published a Hobart Paper called Beyond Universities . In it, he made a number of predictions about what would happen to universities in societies where more and more information was being generated, circulated and used - the "knowledge society". Sir Douglas - who had already been a professor at several big universities, on the board of private companies, an appointee to a major quango and chairman of the Economic and Social Research Council - was about as well placed to make predictions as anyone could have been.

Moreover, he got quite a lot right. He saw how narrowing the impact of the research assessment exercise would be. And competition has indeed blown the top off the salary scale. Academics as a whole may be among the financial losers of the past 20 years, but top professors are bidding up their salaries in a world market.

What is most interesting, though, is that Sir Douglas expected major structural changes that have simply not occurred. He predicted that information technology and video and audio-conferencing would revolutionise teaching. He thought universities would become a less clearly defined and distinctive sector. More businesses would become involved in teaching and awarding degrees; more professionals from outside academe would move in and out of university teaching; and more ideas would be generated and disseminated outside traditional academic faculties.

In 1991, I might have made the same mistake about IT. By the mid-1990s, I knew just how much work was involved in creating and updating IT-based materials for distance learning - and how un-thrilled most students were by them. Of course, some people (and most politicians) are still convinced that a productivity revolution based on IT is round the corner, but I would put this in the "failed predictions" box.

I am more intrigued by the extent to which universities still dominate higher levels of teaching and research. The importance of private-sector facilities such as the famous Bell Labs has diminished, and businesses have made very little impact on teaching. McDonald's calls its training facility Hamburger University, proving that even fast-food companies have a sense of humour. Otherwise, there are stories in the press from time to time about some "corporate university" being launched, and that is the last you hear of them. In the UK, a few private training companies have cherry-picked in vocational fields such as law and accountancy, where the qualifications are awarded by charitable and professional bodies. In the US, the University of Phoenix is famous for being run like a business, for rapid multi-campus growth and for offering degree teaching online. But, again, it concentrates on a few highly defined vocational degrees, which give it economies of scale, and its delivery model is much like that of our own Open University. Meanwhile, across the world people are opening and expanding universities of a most familiar kind.

Government attempts to recreate universities for a new age have been a pretty unmitigated disaster. In the UK, the e-University was founded in 2000 and died four years and a lot of taxpayers' money later. The University for Industry was launched in 2000 to make an enormous range of learning available to businesses and individual learners by using computers in workplaces and the community. It was going to equip us for competition in "the global marketplace". But five years on, it has transmogrified into something called learndirect, which offers beginners' courses in IT and adult basic skills. And does anyone know exactly what happened to the NHS University - born 2003, died 2004?

It does seem odd. Universities are such unwieldy and expensive operations that they surely need to change. Perhaps, though, the volume of information out there today is a force for stability. How, as a student, can one sort out what is reputable and what is not, or know whether a qualification will have any currency the day after tomorrow? The more global our economies, the less people know, first hand, about the institutions their employees and colleagues attended. So procedures and rules that are age-old, slow and unwieldy may end up as the best signal of quality that we have. In which case, if you don't like committees, stay out of 21st-century academe.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.

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