World View: Watch out for scavengers

April 20, 2001

Nobody can dismiss the impact of communications technologies and private provision on global higher education, argues Brenda Gourley.

"Unbundling" and "outsourcing" are two words that have become familiar in the past few years. They are usually applied in the business environment where, in a globalising world, competition becomes ever more fierce and the need to focus on the core of the business activity is imperative.

Many universities have also outsourced service activities and freed more academic and administrative time to devote to the core of their operations: teaching and research. But even beyond this push for efficiency, there were imperatives driving the system, not the least of which were fuelled by the notion of a knowledge society and the need to increase access to education.

The result was not only the establishment and growth of open and distance-learning operations devoted exclusively to the task; the traditional institutions also modified their original goals to include reaching students who wished to study in this mode.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of university-level courses are now available through a distance-learning mode of one sort or another. Many of these courses are from prestigious universities. Some are less than satisfactory. In the relatively small South African market, hundreds are advertised. It boggles the imagination to consider what such institutions are prepared to spend in more lucrative settings.

In the knowledge economy, education has turned itself into big business and, inevitably, has attracted the private sector. Our minister of education has described many of these entrants to our market as "scavengers" who pick off the lucrative courses and leave to the public sector those courses that are expensive to mount and teach. I think the word is a little harsh. After all, scavengers also have their role in the order of life. If you have a free market and appropriate regulatory provisions in place, it is not productive to wish away the natural tendency of the private sector to appreciate market opportunities and act accordingly.

The debate has, however, concentrated the minds of the public-sector institutions. Such concentration has led to the language of outsourcing and unbundling being spoken in traditional universities and to strategic thought being given to what their competencies are and how they are best deployed.

"Providing content" may mean different things to different people, but we know that what it does not mean is transferring lecture notes onto computers for students to read. We have come a long way in the past few years. We now know a good deal more about how our students learn. We also know that the interactive world of e-learning has changed the way in which people can learn, mostly for the better.

Whether most academic staff in most institutions understand how and why is another matter. Many older staff, secure in their grasp of their discipline, hope that they will somehow make it through to retirement without having to come to any real understanding of the workings, much less the construction of an interactive website. But the world will not wait for a new generation of academics to appear to grasp this issue.

Indeed, the world of business has already moved in. Corporate universities abound, with their degree offerings often recognised by national departments of education. If ever universities thought that their long traditions and well-established reputations were not under threat, I would recommend they think again. All too many of our students are more focused on getting a job than on getting a degree, and if they can kill two birds with one stone, a degree from Microsoft sounds like the stone they would choose. Clearly this would not be so in every case - but it is true in sufficient cases to make a serious difference.

One vision is that old and new institutions of higher learning will take up one or more of the roles described above across national boundaries. Another almost certain outcome is that institutions will have to give much more attention to the transfer of credits from other institutions. The present situation, where many institutions credit a limited number of courses obtained in an institution other than their own, will not be a sustainable one. The growth of the home-school movement will inevitably lead to a home-college movement, enabling students to study in groups on their own. Some observers have predicted that the virtual university will be the dominant mode of higher education by 2025.

There was a time not so long ago when I would not have been entirely convinced that this type of thinking would be of relevance to any countries other than the United States and other first-world players, where access to technology is not an issue. However, the more I see of the technology made possible by satellite communications, the more hopeful I am for the third world and the less sanguine I believe any of us can be about what we can offer in an "unbundled" higher education global world. The sooner we start concentrating, the better.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the University of Natal, Durban.

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