Universities for what?

April 12, 1996

The few clues as to how Sir Ron Dearing expects his forthcoming review of UK higher education to shape up include strong indications that he will be looking to see what contribution new technologies can make to cutting costs and increasing access.

On March 22 Sir John Daniel, vice chancellor of the Open University, took up this theme, suggesting that radical gains in cost-effectiveness could be possible by building on his university's pioneering work. In this month's Multimedia we begin a more detailed discussion of how information technologies can - and should - shape the university of the future. The first contributor is a self-confessed enthusiast, Chris Hutchison of Kingston University.

Starting from the essential question, "what are universities for?" Dr Hutchison describes the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Collaborative Learning Environments project (CIRCLE) with which he is involved and sketches out his vision of the "virtual university" in which lecturers become "instructional designers" (pages v and vi). The discussion will be widened in next month's Multimedia by contributors who, while sharing some of Dr Hutchison's enthusiasm, lay more emphasis on roles for universities which technology cannot fill.

New technologies permit new forms of investigation and delivery. They enable us, for example, to eavesdrop this week's Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona. They allow researchers to process enormous amounts of data. They promise, after the initial investment, big savings in delivering information. But they are essentially tools, subject always to the rubbish-in-rubbish-out syndrome. As the enthusiasts push their case, the Dearing inquiry will need to keep firmly before them the question which informs our Multimedia debate: what are universities for?

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