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October 13, 2011

The upheaval in UK higher education is seen by many as a crisis. But, as the cliché goes, a crisis can also be a time of opportunity, and while all agree that change is in the air, it is not yet clear where we will end up.

This question is addressed in a series of posts by Dougald Hine on his Posterous blog, and developed by The University Project, which was set up to consider the future of the university.

The premise, explains Mr Hine, is that "there's a moment of opportunity right now to do something exciting and important - to salvage what was good from the wreckage of our higher-education systems, and to reground it in less damaged and damaging assumptions than those which too often characterised our institutions".

In his latest posting, he has set out a series of reasons why he believes the time for action has arrived. The first is that "there's something important coming together around networked technologies and new sociable collaboration spaces that's beginning to feel plausible as an alternative home for the spirit of the university. It's happening just as long-term strains within existing institutions, together with the acute effects of economic crisis, are prompting many people to look for such an alternative."

Noting the job cuts, curriculum overhauls and budgetary restraints, he continues: "If a major disruption of our existing institutional forms is under way, then this is also a good time for a deeper enquiry into the promise at the heart of the university, the social good for which it has provided a home, and the ways in which this is (or is not) made available to people through both existing institutions and emerging alternatives."

With many English institutions raising tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012, and the likes of the private New College of the Humanities offering courses at up to twice the price, Mr Hine says it is important to recognise that not everyone is interested in the bottom line.

"Many of us are conscious of belonging to a kind of 'invisible college' of friends and collaborators, and are interested in exploring ways of making this more legible, so as to support lighter and more informal ways of pursuing intellectual enquiries, and to provide entry points to networks which can seem elusive at best, exclusive at worst," he writes.

However, he also acknowledges that the idea of a perfect storm of technological, social and political developments is not a new concept.

Mr Hine says it was two years ago that he first came to the view that education had reached its "Napster moment", a reference to the online file-sharing site that helped to revolutionise the music industry. And he links to a text that was handed out at the student protests last November, which says that the emergence of a virtual marketplace "has inadvertently equipped us with the tools needed to undo the current rules of engagement".

It boldly predicts: "Universities are collapsing. Not as a result of dramatic cuts but because they represent an outmoded model for their primary function, the exchange of knowledge and research."

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