We're a Triumph

December 8, 2006

If we are to hold our own in the 21st century, we should take a lesson from Google and YouTube, argues Stephen Heppell

The UK has a knack of losing wonderful assets. No sooner do we have something world leading than we begin a gentle journey of complacency and poor vision that too often misses key trends and leaves us sidelined.

We invented alpine skiing and football, but struggle nowadays to compete.

Our sports car industry was once the toast of the world; now just crumbs remain. In 1908, we topped the Olympic medal table; in 2004, we were placed tenth. As we move towards the end of the 21st century's first decade it is alarming to find higher education exhibiting all the misplaced confidence and poor vision of these illustrious previous failures.

Contexts, cultures and conditions change. Sadly, numbers are dropping fast: in 1971, we had 14.2 million under 16-year-olds - by 2030 we will have fewer than 9 million in a growing population. Children are scarce in the UK and in schools the policy mantra is, quite rightly, that "every child matters". One rather complacent response, of course, is to look overseas for university students rather than boosting participation rates at home.

In 2005, the British Council anticipated that demand for higher education places from overseas students could rocket over the next 15 years from about 0,000 to more than 800,000 by 2020. By looking outside Europe, income from overseas fees is expected to increase from £1.125 billion in 2003-04 to £1.621 billion in 2007-08, with more growth beyond. But there has been an ominous rise in the number of overseas students at Chinese universities, up by 43 per cent between 2003 and 2004, and China expects to rapidly become a net importer of students.

There is time, just, for a fresh look at UK higher education today. The 21st century is emphatically not the 20th century. Then, most of our economic success stories might be characterised as "building big things that did things for people", from a national railway network to the National Curriculum. Content was king, education was delivered, wisdom was received. Encyclopaedias were sold door to door and knowledge was valued.

It was all one way. But in the 21st century all the success stories, from Google and YouTube to the huge growth in our voluntary sector, can be characterised as "helping people to help each other". In economic terms, knowledge has become a free good; encyclopaedias are remaindered. In this symmetrical world of peer-to-peer endeavour, companies are discovering the power of agile, collegiate structures with organic project teams. They embrace collaboration and communication above all else. At precisely the same time, our universities appear to be rushing backwards into the 20th century, inventing 1970s hierarchies of pro vice-chancellor upon pro vice-chancellor, personal accountability and stultifying accounting procedures.

Meanwhile, our schools are producing a newly broad portfolio of potential success: children are podcasting, YouTubing, blogging, performing and animating their way through their learning together. A seductive wave of effective and gender-flat performance-based science teaching is storming through from Eastern Europe, while project-based work is evidencing remarkable ambition and achievement both earlier and faster. These and other global trends such as personalisation are pushing aside the old "delivery" model of learning, with its one-size-fits-all approach. The result is a generation of ambitious learners worldwide, running way ahead of their criterion referencing; confident, ambitious, achieving and diverse. Faced with this onslaught, universities already look like structurally declining industries. Standards have been confused with standardisation, quality control has been confused with quality assurance.

If 21st-century learners have a fault, it is their impatience. All round the world they love the progress they can make and are ambitious to do better yet. They will not "power down" to come to school, nor to university.

Many universities simplistically look only for productivity gains from technology. Their basic web applications with rudimentary chat forums and notes in pdf format are emphatically not learning - they are delivery. They are a million miles from the complex peer-to-peer environments with their rich granularity of discourse and temporal sophistication that characterise the world that our learners inhabit. If higher education is to survive in the UK, it will need to radically alter its cost base, to properly embrace inclusion, to vow never to waste another learner and to be ambitious for improving standards.

Really significant assumptions need to be tested (we may not need campuses, but we will need a sense of collegiality). Some 6 per cent of every university's turnover should be devoted to learning research. Learning is what they all do and they need to do it much better to survive. The British motorcycle industry didn't think it needed to research the emergent needs of its new customers. If I say that in 2006 the UK university sector looks like a Triumph, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Stephen Heppell is head of policy, research and practice consultancy, Heppell.net, and was formerly director of Ultralab, the learning technology research unit at Anglia Ruskin University.

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