Fierce competition in the virtual, global game

November 5, 1999

The United Kingdom must not let the fast-moving providers in the world information market get too far ahead, says Michael Thorne

The Foresight programme of the Office of Science and Technology aims to inform the national research agenda by coming up with visions of the future. Recent reorganisation has led to its work being taken forward by a number of panels covering topics from ageing to transport. In a previous incarnation, the Foresight programme's information communications and media panel began work last year on engaging the university community in a debate on the future of higher education.

Members of the panel were concerned about how United Kingdom higher education would maintain its world-leading position in the face of globalisation, strong commercial pressures from the United States for a more consumerist model (with levels of Wall Street investment that would be unmatchable by publicly funded UK universities), worrying developments south of the equator that have removed the unique selling point of universities (New Zealand has frameworks in place that could allow companies to award their own degrees) and the relentless privatisation and centralisation of research worldwide.

The panel's concerns have been echoed by many of the authors in the collection of papers in Universities in the Future, which was published this month by the OST to launch the initiative. Probably the greatest danger is viewed as a lack of involvement in the debate and in the necessary change processes that will enable us to emerge fit to operate in the 21st-century higher education environment with things under our control and with our world status preserved or enhanced.

Some authors present a picture of the university of 2025 as rationalised on a global scale into massive institutions and wired into the global information/intelligence/knowledge system, with a student body located wherever there is a digital connection and a demand for its product. Many of the existing universities will have disappeared, leaving extensions to sixth forms and sixth-form colleges to take their place.

In one possible scenario one year of face-to-face higher education would be abolished, with most coursework shifted onto electronic delivery and online supervision. Lectures would be electronic, while tutorials would be a mix of video-conferencing and email. Face-to-face education would be increasingly provided in local colleges affiliated to universities.

Some new ideas already in place in the US set the trends. Wester University has 15,000 students at 64 locations. The California Virtual University brings together 700 courses from 81 public and private institutions into a single catalogue. The Southern Regional Electronic Campus operates across 15 US states with 100 courses delivered through television, internet and more traditional means in 42 colleges. Sylvan Learning Systems started by offering high-school tests. It now has links with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The University of Technology at Berkeley and 48 sites in shopping malls and business centres and a corporate aim of becoming the leading provider of educational services to families, schools and industry.

Probably the US's most widely reported private online higher education success is the University of Phoenix. Its founder, Cambridge graduate John Sperling, predicts that the development of universities will need to be along the lines espoused by Cambridge's vice-chancellor, Sir Alec Broers. According to Sperling, "although British and Australian universities are moving beyond national borders, unless their governments allow them to operate as publicly traded corporations their growth will be limited by lack of capital and ... by their inability to incentivise managers to maximum performance by providing them with the opportunity to build personal wealth through stock options".

Strathclyde University principal professor Sir Graham Hills thinks the changing nature of the undergraduate experience is that it should be a broadly based first-degree course more appropriate to mass higher education that is followed, for the professional few, by demanding training in recognised graduate schools. Emphasising outputs rather than inputs, quality standards should be determined by the student-customers, their empowerment being reinstated by making supplemented student fees the principal vehicle of university funding.

Following a seminar held this week in Edinburgh and a counterpart to be held in London before Christmas, the work on this project will continue with regional workshops in the new year. It is hoped a key output will be a documented research agenda. Michael Thorne is vice-principal at Napier University and the editor of Foresight - Universities in the Future, published by the Office of Science and Technology.

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