Analysis: So what are you good at?

June 21, 2002

UK universities have great brand names and are good at research but not much else, a conference heard. Alison Goddard reports

Universities and colleges should play to their strengths and stop trying to be all things to all people, a conference heard last week.

Higher education has good brand names and does well at research but is no good at anything else, Alan Nelson, managing director of online learning resource provider Nelson Croom, told delegates at "The future of higher education: profits, partnerships and the public good".

He said: "What are universities good at? Teaching? From my experience, that involved mumbling in cold buildings. Syllabus design? Three weeks on a topic that happened to be the PhD subject of the lecturer. Are you good at resource management? Are you good at coaching and mentoring? I remember a note on the door saying the lecturer was available on Wednesday mornings between 10 and 11 o'clock."

Mr Nelson, speaking on the role of publishers in borderless education, said that universities and colleges should partner with publishers to maximise their likely success in a borderless world. He said: "What are publishers good at? Sales and marketing. Risk-taking for profit. Copyright: and I think you should stop giving everything away for free to publishers and then hating them. Managing change and strategic development: we can look at a market and identify where we want to be and then look at acquisitions."

Publishers are well placed to control the new media. As well as publishing textbooks, publishers own much of the new technology used to teach students. Thomson is the largest single shareholder in WebCT, and Pearson is the largest single shareholder in Blackboard.

Universities and colleges see higher education as a societal good and impose a supply-driven model in which academics design courses and enrol students on them. The view espoused by the private sector sees higher education as a private good that requires a demand-driven model in which educators identify the needs of employers and help them to meet those needs.

Mr Nelson said: "The problem is that the number of individuals who seek education as a private good is increasing much more rapidly than the growth of education as a societal good."

Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of the University of East London, said that the problem with developing new ways of teaching within universities was the presence of those who were too comfortable with the old ways. He said it was like trying to streamline the operations of a high-street bank - which would include the closure of smaller branches - while those on the steamlining committee constantly asked where the smaller branches fitted into the new plan.

Earlier, Jorge Klor de Alva, president and chief executive of Apollo International, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, told the conference that his university had been the first to industrialise the process of higher education.

The University of Phoenix - which offers mainly classroom-based evening classes to American adults - now has 140,000 students at 170 campuses and 300 corporate sites, including a campus in the Netherlands. It also has students taking online programmes in 70 countries. Apollo International is now moving into India and Germany. It is well established in Brazil, where 160,000 school children and 650 higher education students are enrolled.

Reacting to the presentation, Maurits van Rooijen, head of international strategy and development at Westminster University, said that there was room for the public and the private sector because they served different markets in the same way that there was room for both brasseries and fast-food restaurants.

Dr van Rooijen suggested that staff working at British universities were the equivalent of top chefs who would not want to work - nor would be suited to work - in a fast-food joint.

Dr Klor de Alva retorted that Phoenix courses were taught by highly qualified academics. He said: "The University of Phoenix was founded by someone with a PhD from the University of Cambridge and I left a chair at the University of California, Berkeley. Our lecturers like to teach adult students. Many of them want to interact with adults and enjoy inquiring, aggressive and challenging minds."

Dr Klor de Alva also outlined how he prevented students from dropping out - apparently, just 3 per cent do so. He said: "We love our students because we hate to see our revenue stream coming to an end. We spend millions of dollars a year keeping them happy."

Dr Klor de Alva described the university's approach to attendance as "taking a page from the Jesuits and a page from the Marines". If a Phoenix student misses one class with a good excuse, she is allowed to stay. But if she misses a second class, she is excluded from the programme and her fees are not refunded. An online student must log on at least five times a week or be excluded without a refund.

Asked about the role of publishers in establishing Phoenix, Dr Klor de Alva replied: "They began (the relationship) as the thieves they have always been." He said that the number of students at the university meant any book put on a course reading list became a bestseller immediately. Phoenix now publishes most of its own books and will be publishing online in future.

Frank Newman, director of the futures project at Brown University in the US, concluded the conference, which was organised by Universities UK and the Association of Commonwealth Universities in association with the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

He said: "Is the public, scholarly role of higher education under threat? The answer is yes. Should we be worried? (No) - we should be focused and determined.

"Higher education has been given a special place. It has been given respect and trust but these are becoming a bit tattered. Some of that trust has eroded.

"We want to rebuild our relationship with society. We will address our flaws and, in return, (society) will debate the support of higher education," he added.

FIND THE RIGHT PARTNER

Universities should be wary of jumping into bed with the wrong partner, according to Sir Graeme Davies, principal of the University of Glasgow.

He said: "Universities have a legitimate claim to have the highest concentrations of knowledge, and those who move first will be best placed. But there are likely to be many less well-qualified sources that will seek to exploit the position and benefit from the demands, and this could lead to an extensive, unsupervised supply that could be damaging by association to established institutions. For students and employers, there will be much to recommend international validation and legitimisation."

Sir Graeme chairs global university network Universitas 21, which set up a £60 million online university, U21 Global, with Thomson Learning. Based in Singapore, U21 Global plans to offer business and technology degrees to students in Asia. It estimates that the global demand for higher education is worth £75 billion, from 32 million students.

Sir Graeme said: "There may be risks, but the rewards are likely to be great."

In a successful partnership, each side had things in common, Sir Graeme said. He cited similar ranges of academic disciplines, commitments to international research, collaborations with industry and commerce, staff backgrounds and student communities.

He said: "The important move must be to put the infrastructure in place well before it is needed. If you can get the infrastructure in place, then there are potential gains, including focused and accessible mobility; exchange of best practice in academic, political and managerial arenas; and an ability to share experience, expertise and developments in areas related to distance education."

But he warned: "In the near future, institutions are likely to find themselves in more hostile political circumstances as competition for national and international resources becomes more fierce.

"Without careful planning, the most probable outcome in dealing with increasing economic and political pressures will be a set of piecemeal, disjointed, ad hoc responses dominated by local pragmatism."

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