To wit to woo at a student's hotel

August 2, 1996

Some time ago a wit wrote a particularly provocative article in one of the business reviews. His central claim was that only 66 organisations had left their stated purposes unchanged since 1600. They included the Lutheran and Catholic churches, the Manx and Iceland parliaments and - if I am not mistaken - 62 universities.

Historians might take issue with the rather glaring holes in the author's knowledge. But there is still an important kernel of insight in the argument. The problem is that you can interpret the insight in two different ways. The author said it showed universities are chronically stagnant, unable to adapt and predisposed to resting on their laurels.

As someone else once showed, universities spend less on their own research and development than almost any industry (pulp and aggregates, I think, are the two exceptions). Alternatively you can read the stability of the universities' purposes as a sign of their extraordinary adaptability. They may look the same (or at least the handful do that occupy the same buildings they once did), but in fact they are hugely different from the universities that taught the professions a few centuries ago. Their very ability to survive, in such great numbers, through centuries of social upheaval, must be testimony to some pretty smart adaptive capabilities.

At the moment you can see support for both interpretations. These elderly (and not so elderly) institutions have coped with the massive increase in numbers. However, few have been that imaginative in using technology, despite cost pressures to do so and although the Open University is an admirable model it seems to me more like the apotheosis of an industrial model of standardisation and high throughput rather than a harbinger of a post-industrial model of education that would tailor courses more to individual needs.

We will soon see greater innovation as more institutions are doing university-like things. In science there are laboratories of firms like Glaxo and IBM. Business is setting up a bizarre range of universities, from Unipart's Unipart U where you need no qualifications to enter, to Sony's training systems allowing employees to do bite-sized one minute mini-courses on screen.

Universities do retain the monopoly privilege of being able to confer degrees. But they will need some other unique comparative advantage if they are going to survive. One view is that this could be the residential character of the university. If learning can be done on-line it becomes all the more important to think of universities as social centres, places to meet other people, get involved in voluntary activity or theatre, and to become civilised (even though the cynical would argue that this has more to do with sex and alcohol than the pursuit of wisdom). Others foresee a day when universities become a sort of hotel, which you visit now and then for a weekend or a few months to refresh the brain cells, while more basic learning is done from home on-line.

My own preference is for the idea of the university as a club, which you join at 18 and then use to provide courses at various times through your life, to cement a network of friends and social institutions, and to provide a virtual association which you could draw on on-line for the odd bit of information or a contact: an alumni-based spine in other words, through what may become increasingly varied careers in more unstable labour markets.

The important point is that no-one knows. Amid such uncertainty it is probably a good thing to encourage as many different models as possible as, in the final analysis, it is through experience that new forms can be tested and proven.

Geoff Mulgan is director of Demos, the independent think tank.

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