Hotline to knowledge exchange

August 29, 1997

Douglas Hague calls for a contest to envisage, run and design the university of the future

That Higher Education in a Learning Society should be the title of a Government report is a spectacular and welcome advance.

It may seem churlish to criticise a report which pulls together so much material, pointing the way forward with clear checklists and recommendations, but something is missing. It is coherence. Checklists are not maps and certainly not models. The committee needed a model to display the complexity of the university system and the knowledge society in which, like it or not, it should be embedded.

Suppose the committee had categorised the university as a knowledge exchange, whose role is to acquire, interpret and disseminate knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge would immediately pose a choice between obtaining it internally through research or from outside - a question I have never heard discussed in any university. It also means asking how a university can confront the coming knowledge explosion - both in the amount of knowledge available and the number of channels carrying it. It will pose a further unthinkable question: do universities need libraries any more? How far should other channels for acquiring knowledge replace them? And who should "own" or oversee them?

The committee is right to insist that each university should develop a strategy for information and communications technology. But those responsible for that strategy must somehow stay ahead of leaps in technology, for example, the dramatic way that comprehensive databases of learned journals are reducing the length and tediousness of literature surveys.

The second role of a knowledge exchange - interpretation - emphasises the need for first-rate teaching material, written and electronic. The committee sees "scholarship" as an individual activity. The knowledge explosion and growing hyper-specialisation mean that we shall need to organise large-scale "scholarship", to interpret whole fields of recent knowledge even for academics in closely related fields. Can we persuade any but the most selfless academics to take this seriously? And how? Or is it a task to be delegated to knowledge businesses?

The third role of a knowledge exchange is dissemination. In a university teaching has the biggest role and nothing in Dearing is more welcome than the emphasis on the centrality of the student and the need for imaginative use of information and communications technology in learning.

So long as money follows research, this change in university cultures will be next to impossible.

Analysing the university as a knowledge exchange would also emphasise the need for stronger links between universities, the broader society and especially the growing number of knowledge businesses outside. There is a reluctance in Dearing to welcome outside help. The impression given is that the university is a Reithian broadcasting company, not a telephone exchange and certainly not the Internet. Graduates in knowledge businesses - and especially entrepreneurs running them - are obvious allies in helping to build universities into the knowledge society. Of course, there are risks but arms-length alliances cannot be enough. Academics would be surprised at their energy, intellect and especially their youth. So, apparently, would the Department for Education and Employment.

The make-up of the committee displays the worst of Whitehall: too many from universities, no-one from an entrepreneurial business trading in knowledge itself. Worst of all was the age of most members. Knowledge entrepreneurs are getting younger and, with more students graduating, the average age of knowledge workers will fall. Their views on the future should have been represented directly. As William Rees-Mogg argues, to the young, globalism seems natural, individualism seems natural, and the Internet is natural. The young have a more certain grasp of the next stage of world development, the speed of technological change having reversed the values of youth and age. By ignoring under-35s, the DFEE deprived the committee of contact with the liveliest figures in a burgeoning knowledge society.

It could, however, even now make amends through a belated suggestion to the secretary of state. Radical change is needed, on the lines of the committee's proposals. But radical innovation cannot be managed from the centre.

Creditably, the committee has proposed competitive bids for funds from half a dozen universities to experiment with capitalising on an Intranet. But why stop there? Why not take up my longstanding suggestion that some ten universities could similarly be chosen - through competitive bidding - to envision, design and run the university of the future? As with the Intranet experiments, the lessons should be captured by a high-quality research project and widely disseminated.

We need a pluralistic system. The best pluralistic system is a market. But the national heart-searching over the timid moves towards charging student fees show that, in British education, the market is still at bay. Managed pluralism is the second-best way forward.

The author is associate fellow of Templeton College, Oxford

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