Net fails to deliver mortal blow

September 22, 2000

Reports of the death of the traditional university are exaggerated, according to a debate on the future of higher education in Manchester last week.

The motion, "Without the e-university, higher education in the UK is dead", was quashed convincingly. About 200 visitors to the Association for Learning Technology Conference at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology heard Sally Brown, deputy principal of Stirling University, speaking against the motion, argue that online education was merely a useful tool. It could not replace human support.

"Evidence for death has to be total. A corpse must not breathe, and certainly not pant. Any continuing sign of breath from the currently panting HE sector and this motion is lost," she said.

British universities have been around and diversifying for centuries, Professor Brown said. The electronic revolution would complement but not replace traditional university life, just as 40 years ago multiple-choice testing failed to fulfil predictions that it would replace all other types of assessment.

"Universities are not going to be toppled by demands that they all fall in to line over anything, whether it is a virtual venture like the e-university or the Quality Assurance Agency reviews," Professor Brown said.

For Professor Brown, technology's value lies in its potential for enhancing the dialogue between staff and students, not in imposing rules on delivery mechanisms. The public expect real - not virtual - experiences for scientists in laboratories, for medical students with patients and for student teachers with pupils, she said.

Students excluded from higher education were those most dependent on face-to-face interaction and least able to deal with the frustrations and isolation of fully web-based distance education.

"They are most in need of being motivated by the physical company of academics and other students," Professor Brown said.

"Don't assume they will pay high fees for programmes that do not provide this or that the e-university is protected from volatile overseas markets in its plans to make fortunes."

However, Peter Goodhew, pro vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, argued that economic forces would mean death for those institutions not on board the e-university within five years. "Whether we like it or not, online delivery is cheaper than face-to-face," he said.

"If we assume differential fees will be with us, there can only be a handful of universities who will be able to survive on costly face-to-face delivery - perhaps as few as five. We will be forced to go down the online route," added Professor Goodhew.

This was regrettable, he added, but the inevitable consequence of mass higher education.

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