Universities can no longer afford to stay semi-closed for 22 weeks a year, according to Tessa Blackstone, master of Birkbeck College and former Labour spokesperson on education in the House of Lords.
Lady Blackstone told the Scottish Council Development and Industry forum at Gleneagles Hotel that social, economic and technological forces were transforming higher education from institutional provision largely confined to school-leavers to a system in which many people would be educated and re-educated throughout their lives.
Funding pressures were likely to lead some students to opt for "sprint" learning, immersing themselves in fast, intensive courses and cutting back on leisure pursuits, while others might want to extend their courses by several years so that they could combine study with full or part-time work. "Part-time study can be as addictive as jogging or aerobics, and probably better for us too," she said.
But lifelong learning put a premium on universities being accessible, and it was questionable whether institutions would be able to hang on to the present academic year. This did not threaten research, since it did not imply that everyone was teaching for 50 weeks, but that buildings were used more intensively, with different groups of teachers working at different times, she said.
Universities could not expect to be immune from the profound changes in employment patterns, with contract work, a portfolio of several different jobs and working from home becoming more common. The traditional full-time academic, carrying out teaching and research, would probably be supplanted by people whose teaching was experience-based rather than research-based.
"Many more part-time teachers could be employed who have other jobs," Lady Blackstone said. "Just as barristers contribute part-time teaching to law degrees, so may television producers to courses on the media, data-system specialists to courses on computing, or museum curators to art history degrees."
Pressure from Government to keep down costs also increased the likelihood of a wider range of staff contracts. "Full-time academics teaching relatively few hours per week have high overheads and while their pay may be deplorably low, they do not come cheap in other ways," she said.