That is the view of Open University vice-chancellor Martin Bean, who framed FutureLearn – which launches tomorrow – in the language of 60s counter-cultural rebellion when he spoke today at the Liberal Democrats conference in Glasgow.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, also told the same fringe meeting, titled “Exporting UK Education: can it deliver economic growth?”, that education exports are “a key part of our industrial strategy”.
He noted overseas university campuses such as that established by the University of Central Lancashire in Sri Lanka, while adding that overseas students entering the UK constituted the lion’s share of the nation’s education exports.
Without pointing the finger directly at colleagues in the Home Office for their tightening of student visa rules, Mr Cable warned that “people obsessed with the numbers game around immigration are talking down one of Britain’s most valuable export industries”.
Mr Bean told the meeting, hosted by the CentreForum thinktank and the OU, that online education was vital because the world “cannot build enough bricks and mortar universities” to satisfy demand for higher education in the emerging economies.
And while the UK could not compete with emerging economies in a “race to the bottom” on wages, it could export knowledge to those nations, he added.
Turning to the structure of FutureLearn, Mr Bean dismissed the common critique of Moocs that points to their high drop-out rates.
“Isn’t it just so incredibly sad, that when you’ve [got] all this disruptive innovation that’s going to unbundle higher education and make it accessible in ways never before dreamt of, that we perpetuate terms like failures [and] drop outs,” he told the meeting.
He asked “why wouldn’t we want to celebrate anybody’s participation in any piece of learning or progression”.
FutureLearn would be “modularised” and involve “a completely different way of structuring” courses, Mr Bean continued. “We’re not going to talk about failures. We’re going to let people set their own targets – god forbid – and measure themselves against their own targets.”
Students, he said, would be able to “benchmark” themselves against peers rather than always having to be subject to what he termed “The Man”, “the university saying: ‘You’re a failure because you didn’t do what we said’. I challenge the whole outdated paradigm.”
Mr Bean added: “One thing that FutureLearn will never do is to confer university credit. That will always be the domain of the university.”
But he predicted that “the university of the future will no longer characterise [itself] by trying to protect all of its content as if that’s a secret source”.
Universities would grant free access to their best “content” but find “differentiation” between Moocs and traditional learning via “the power of their brand, the power of their teaching, the power of their pastoral care and the power of the employment outcomes for the students they teach”, Mr Bean said.