Universities must not repeat music’s costly online errors

Feargal Sharkey tells GuildHE conference of hits, myths and the cost of ‘free’ in the Mooc era

November 14, 2013

Source: Rex Features

Hold it tight: Feargal Sharkey says struggles await sector in the digital age

“You will make the same mistakes as the music industry. All you can do is try to limit the damage that might be caused along the way.”

Feargal Sharkey is better known for fronting Northern Irish punk band the Undertones than for offering advice to the UK academy about how it should cope with higher education’s impending digital age, but he was on hand at the GuildHE conference at Bucks New University earlier this month to do just that.

Mr Sharkey, who after his days as a recording artist became a senior figure in the UK recording industry, most recently as head of the umbrella group UK Music, gave an address drawing parallels between universities making ever-larger amounts of their course materials available for free online, and the proliferation of online music-sharing that began in 1999 with the launch of Napster – a web-based platform that gave users unparalleled access to “free” music.

That moment “was to cause a multimillion-dollar-a-year global entertainment industry to rethink, reshape, recast, struggle, strive, develop, inspire and mould itself to a new world”, he told delegates.

Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, has previously referred to the birth of massive open online courses as higher education’s “Napster moment”.

Mr Sharkey continued: “In the coming weeks, month and years, you will hear an awful lot from soothsayers, carpetbaggers, snakeoil salesmen and futurists.”

The first myth the sector would encounter, he said, was that everything should be made available for free – at which point the democratisation of the market would lead to everyone finding their audience.

The recording industry found that rather than encouraging more people to discover music by lesser-known acts, current online listening habits had borne out the “long-held tradition that people like hits”, he said. The vast majority of songs by lesser-known artists made accessible via the internet fail to sell a single copy – words that could be considered a warning for universities without strong international brands.

Moreover, it was not the case that lesser-known artists were benefiting from a much-vaunted growth in revenues from live performance.

“If your name is Prince, then you can do 20-odd nights to 20,000 people with each one of them paying £70. It’s good business,” Mr Sharkey acknowledged. “But it’s not the same if you have to hire a van and drive up the M6 to Manchester.”

He went on to dismiss claims that the marketing benefits of making content available for free – be it music or university courses – would justify the cost.

“It’s extraordinary that somebody somewhere for the sake of this utopian evangelistic notion was prepared to abandon the basic market mechanisms of property, and the right to get paid a fair day’s wage for their work,” he said.

However, despite foreseeing gloom and doom for the sector as a result of the democratisation of learning afforded by increased internet access, Mr Sharkey did have one tale of success.

“Let me tell you about a bunch of young Irishmen, 17 years old, living in Northern Ireland and wanting to be in a little rock’n’roll band,” he said.

“They gave away a copy of one record for free in the hope and expectation that they might receive some benefit at some point for that investment. It turns out that record was called Teenage Kicks. It was sent to [BBC Radio 1 disc jockey] John Peel. That turned out OK.”


Bottom of the bill? Policy insiders on higher education’s poll position in the run-up to 2015

What is in store for higher education at the next general election? This was the subject of a debate at the GuildHE conference in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire on 5 November.

Among the contributors were politicians’ special advisers and experts from thinktanks on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. Here is what they had to say about the importance (or otherwise) of the higher education sector in the build-up to the 2015 polls.

Ryan Shorthouse

Ryan Shorthouse
Director of Bright Blue, which campaigns for ‘liberal conservatism’

“The [Conservative Party’s 2015] manifesto will be very slim….[Tory campaign consultant] Lynton Crosby wants to, and I quote, ‘cut the crap’, and there will be a focus on very key areas – the economy, living standards, immigration.”

Rick Muir

Rick Muir
Associate director for public services at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a centre-left thinktank

“There’s only one way that higher education could be big in some areas [at the next general election], and that is if the Labour Party remains committed to the [policy of reducing the fee cap to] £6,000. That would put the Liberal Democrat party in a position where it has to compete on that ground.”

Mark Leach

Mark Leach
Until October, special adviser to Labour’s Shabana Mahmood, who was then shadow universities and science minister

“The fees policy that was instituted [by this government] isn’t sustainable…[The Conservative Party has] a fully fledged higher education bill picked over by lawyers and ready to go, but not the political will or capital to actually implement it. Which is a shame, because whoever comes in next time is going to have to sort it out.”

Nick Hillman

Nick Hillman
Currently special adviser to universities and science minister David Willetts. From January, he will be director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

“Margaret Thatcher introduced maintenance loans in 1990, and they were deemed to be very unpopular…her party went on to win the next election. Tony Blair introduced tuition fees in 1998 and went on to win the 2001 election with a stonking majority. He then tripled fees in 2004 and went on to win the 2005 election. I do think that people exaggerate the importance of higher education [to voters].”

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