Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said the rise of massive open online courses - known as Moocs - offered by world-class institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “will challenge the nature of higher education”.
Speaking at a conference titled We Don’t Need No Education? Visions of Higher Education for the 21st Century, organised by student thinktank the Wilberforce Society, Sir Leszek said that less prestigious universities that focused on teaching rather than research could struggle in the face of new online courses.
“For those in the knowledge-transfer system, there are troubled times ahead,” he told an audience at the Cambridge Union Society on 18 January. “Why do a course costing &#163;9,000 when you could sit the Mooc offered by MIT?” he asked.
However, online courses did not pose a threat to Cambridge because they could not replicate the debate and discussion central to the university’s tutorial system, he added.
“Will they change what happens at Cambridge? No,” he asserted.
Lord Rees of Ludlow, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, also doubted whether Moocs would affect teaching methods at Cambridge. “The lecturer can be replaced by distance learning - what cannot be is seminars or tutorials,” he said.
However, Len Shackleton, professor of economics at the University of Buckingham, said many universities were complacent about the threat of online courses.
“There is a risk that traditional universities will be swept away by a wave of innovation,” Professor Shackleton said. “If universities do not react to [change], they will go the way of Jessops and Blockbuster, who thought their business models would last for ever.”
Teaching methods used by most universities were “stuck in the 19th century”, he argued, adding that “degree courses are far more expensive than they need to be”.
University buildings were used for only a fraction of the year for teaching, while academic contracts were outdated and “not fit for purpose”, he said.
“Traditional universities need to get into [Moocs], rather than be like King Canute trying to hold back the waves.”