Doom for discourse is premature

November 13, 1998

We need critics like Dale Spender (page 17), who does excellent work in her Australian academic post and has sufficient media income to speak freely and sharply about universities and the university system. We need a woman who speaks up for sociable, feminine styles of discourse as opposed to the masculine, argumentative styles that still dominate academia. And we need a champion for the internet and the new media, which are rewriting the rules of the knowledge business in which higher education has to compete, like it or not.

But her claim that the digital revolution is bypassing universities will be news to the team at the Open University that, against industrial competition, won a British Computer Society award (page 13) for a course which includes a generous helping of student-to-student computer conferencing. It will be news to the Manchester University staff and students who are using a new network link to collaborate with colleagues in China. For thousands of academics use of the new media goes way beyond shovelling ten-year-old lecture notes on to the web.

Universities doomed? The welcome abundance of information on the internet, and its opportunities for peer learning, do not make universities redundant. Even the most student-centred learning can benefit from the (now heavily rationed) guidance of experienced scholars. Nor does it suffice to be educated - you need evidence of it. Exams may be appalling but, if so, we need better methods of assessment. Universities are gatekeepers and custodians, not of information but of standards. Whether on the campus or in cyberspace, universities will persist as guardians of the distinction between being educated and being merely well-informed.

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