Design for the computer age

August 23, 1996

Dear Ron, Sorry I'm a bit rushed. Just back from a few days in Berlin. Fascinated to see a city re-creating itself. To contrast the lively west and backward east.

I am struck that similar backwardness affects many - not all - British universities, because communist planners and British civil servants share a delusion: that a complex system - an economy or higher education - can be controlled from the centre. This requires control information and, to civil servants, it seems obvious that standard measures of "performance" are the answer. But such measures are too narrow for purposes of control. Inevitably, they operate on the precept: if you cannot measure it, it does not exist.

So the quality of teaching is measured by the presentations of teachers, not by impact on students. More research publications are better than fewer, provided they are in "refereed" journals, even if referees belong to inward-looking peer groups.

This might not matter, were universities in a steady state. But we move into an information/knowledge age where knowledge-producing businesses need more well-educated and technically competent people than ever. And the hallmark of the knowledge age is that knowledge becomes out of date more quickly. Lifelong learning will become a reality, demanding from professional "schools" an unprecedented mix of leading edge academic knowledge and practical understanding. Information and communications technology will have the power to transform university education, increasing the ease with which "students" of all ages can learn whenever and wherever they wish. In the medium-term, interactive computers will have the biggest impact on education. Initially, videos and video-conferencing will also be important. The roles of lecturers, tutors and technical support staff will change dramatically. Higher education is not in a steady state.

Radical innovation is needed and cannot be managed from the centre. Pluralism is the only solution, with far-reaching experimentation undertaken within universities. We do not yet know what the 21st-century university will look like: we do not yet know how many successful models of it there will be. Given that a key role of 21st-century higher education will be to educate and develop knowledge workers, we also need to retrace history and work out how to reinvent the polytechnic.

Enough universities should be encouraged to experiment to discover how to design and run a 21st-century institution. Each should create a vision of that institution and put it into effect; set objectives for genuinely innovative teaching and research, drawing on developments in cognitive science and using the emerging information and communications technologies; open themselves more to outside influences, including those of the cleverest people in knowledge businesses; and, not least, find more effective ways to disseminate research messages and so influence the outside world.

Perhaps ten universities would be sufficient to undertake these experiments but maybe they would not be innovative enough. We should also seek radical proposals for quite new universities from outside higher education altogether. Most would come from knowledge businesses, the best of which are run by real professionals. They recognise that what they propose has to be well thought-out, well-organised and well-run. The quality of the best of their proposals would match that from any university.

A final point is crucial. Academics are keen to research into others but paranoid about others researching into them. So we lose the lessons of much academic experiment. That must not happen here. The lessons of these experiments must be captured by high-quality, well-managed research programmes and made known in imaginative ways to all universities, which should be encouraged to accept the most successful ideas. To civil servants, this will sound messy and dangerous. But that is what innovative processes are, and universities need them badly.

DOUGLAS HAGUE Associate fellow of Templeton College, Oxford

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