Collaborative degrees curated by technology giants such as LinkedIn and Facebook could soon be more attractive to students than courses at the UK’s most prestigious higher education institutions, the vice-chancellor of the Open University has claimed.
Peter Horrocks issued the warning as he called on UK universities to drop their “fortress mentality” and embrace credit transfer and the creation of short courses that students could take at different institutions and, once they had accumulated a certain number, get degree-level accreditation for.
Delivering a speech at Durham University that echoed his 2009 call, as director of the BBC World Service, for an end to “fortress journalism”, Mr Horrocks said that universities “that are not involving themselves in such experimentation…may find themselves overtaken by more fleet-footed competitors”.
“I can imagine LinkedIn, with its unparalleled data about the qualifications and employment records of graduate professionals, or Facebook, also with its vast data on education and employment, teaming up with innovative universities to offer global collaborative provision. The brands of any UK university would be puny in comparison,” Mr Horrocks said.
“What would happen if major multinational employers in the UK, perhaps the big four major tech firms, began to accept a ‘LinkedIn’ degree provided by, say, US and Australian universities? LinkedIn would soon know how the successful candidates for roles in those firms might do in terms of promotion and even earnings.
“It might be that LinkedIn degrees would soon be preferred to Russell Group degrees, especially for roles in multinational companies.”
Mr Horrocks said that technological innovation and the opening-up of the English sector to private providers under the Higher Education and Research Act “signalled the end to the traditional age of the university” in which such institutions “lay claim to, or even appear to own, individual students”.
He argued that universities should make it much easier for students to transfer between institutions and courses, saying that “at its simplest”, this could be achieved in the UK by making Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas “valid entry and exit pathways across all qualifications”, forming a “common curriculum” across the sector.
The new Office for Students could force universities’ hands by restricting student finance eligibility to institutions with more interchangeable qualifications, Mr Horrocks said.
He said that universities should also be able to take modules from overseas universities as part of UK-based degrees and revealed that FutureLearn, the OU’s massive open online course platform, was “in advanced discussions with its leading partners to offer such mutual credit recognition”.
“What we ought to pursue is one coherent and inter-transferable university system, even though there are multiple universities. And it should lead the way in creating the global regulatory systems that enable that to be done globally,” Mr Horrocks said.
“The UK’s HE system is highly regarded across the world, and it can only benefit all the more should it lead the way. But, if it doesn’t, platforms and regulation from other jurisdictions will likely crowd out UK mechanisms as globally minded students vote with their feet, or their clicks.”