…or you say “outsourcing”, I say “self-determination”…

I love finding out that what I think are my ideas are not original.  I usually find they have already been thought of by far cleverer people than myself, so feeding the idea that perhaps great minds really do think alike even when they have never heard each other.  Such is the case, roughly anyway, with a view of Higher Education I put forward in 2002 when my own university was consulting on its previous management strategy.

In my case I proposed, in what when I look back on it now seems a hopelessly naive document, the idea of a “Mutual University.”  The scheme, briefly, was that instead of being monolithic, centrally managed, corporate institutions, in future universities could be collections of worker/student/community/business owned autonomous co-operatives, probably based around subject areas, significant research groups or similar who would be members of a secondary co-operative that they all participated in the running of that would be the umbrella “degree awarding body.”  That secondary co-op might also procure common services for its member co-ops, like the central directorates covering functions like Human Resources, Finance, Estates and IT, which might in turn be worker owned co-ops in their own right.

In the back of my mind I had an image of how the ancient collegiate universities like Oxford, our neighbours, formed, and in fact, one of the fatal flaws in my proposal was that I used Oxford’s system of electing a Vice-Chancellor as “primus inter pares” from amongst its constituent colleges for a fixed term as an example – and it happened to be only weeks after they had decided that after Colin Lucas they would no longer use that system but start hiring “professional V-Cs”.

Nonetheless, it was pretty similar in other ways – with their autonomously governed colleges collaborating to form a “university” – though of course theirs tends to be, shall we say, “horizontally integrated” with multi-disciplinary colleges teaching subjects across their four university divisions, whereas my idea was more of “vertical market” subject areas collaborating together to produce a broad range of subjects under the university “umbrella”.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, while I was reading David D Friedman’s “Machinery of Freedom” (pdf and my audio version), I came across his chapter entitled “Adam Smith U” which, penned almost exactly three decades before my miserable effort, suggested a similar, though in his case student driven, system whereby if students found modules they wanted to do by providers from outside their universities, they should be allowed to “contract in” such courses and have them accredited toward their final degree.

Of course, Friedman’s idea is more radical, and to me more exciting now.  Mine was largely co-located and the collaboration was explicit in the secondary co-operative system – if your team of researchers or teachers wanted to be a part of it, they would have to be member/owners of the university co-op and abide by democratically arrived at decisions of that body, such as, potentially, decisions to levy concessions from financially successful subject areas in order to cross fund subjects that were harder to make pay, but deemed essential to providing a broad based university subject offer.

In Friedman’s case there is no such constraint.  The independent module providers could be of all sorts of different corporate forms, or even individuals.  And their one common feature is that a particular university, or a group of them, allow students to include those modules in their degree.  You could imagine, for example, a subject in which it is difficult to achieve “critical mass” for big research projects in one university style institution, gathering researchers into a learned specialist subject academy from across the nation or the world, who would then be able to offer modules to many university type institutions at once.

Think, perhaps, CERN putting together teaching modules that students in many universities around the world could take.  Though it could also be, say, to look back to the heady days of the seventies and eighties in computing, a commercial research facility like the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC).  Or it could be special interest groups, such as I am studying with at the Mises Academy, learned institutes like the RSA maybe or perhaps even franchises of particularly globally popular academic’s work such as Michael Sandel’s Justice at Harvard series.  More prosaically, it could be that an academic attached to a university, happily doing new research but teaching a more established part of her subject cannot justify establishing a whole new module for the few students at her individual institution who might want to take it, but could package something up via her professional group, say the Political Studies Association, for piloting to students from all over the world to make it “profitable” more quickly.

Now, Friedman’s idea might have been particularly difficult forty years ago – the technology to take a module provided by an individual or organisation far away from your base university was hardly available.  Ten years ago even my idea looked more possible with physical colocation of the constituent subject bodies.  But two things have happened since that I think make this an eminently possible future direction for Higher Education – widely available virtual learning and online classroom environments, and the pressure of high fees (especially both in the US and soon to be in the UK).

My current Mises Academy modules provides around three hours contact time per week, together with lots of “offline” interaction between both students (from five continents) and between students and the lecturer, and for an eight week course is costing me $145 including eight class tests and an final grade for the whole course.  Let’s say the average university that will be charging £9,000 from next year gives its students eight ten teaching week modules, they will be somewhere around TEN times the cost of that Mises Academy module.  And I have not had to fork out for any learning resources – everything is available online for free – such is the sense of mission of people with a passion for their message.  An earlier module I did at the StatelessU project of the Centre for a Stateless Society cost me $25 for an eight week course that had essays every week on the basis of reading lists that would make Oxford University proud!

And since in this particular case there’s no university, I believe, in the UK that teaches any Austrian economics (despite either Hayek or von Mises being registered as the favourite 20th century economist by nearly a fifth of US economics faculty members polled recently), who is to say that any economics degree course in the UK is even “complete” in the sense of giving a rounded education in all the different “schools” of economic thought.  Why shouldn’t we be able to make up for what may be seen as, in this case, a national deficiency, by finding a body of Austrian economic experts clustered around one learned institution like Mises, to deliver us part of our degree courses?

If the post-9000 world means, as most universities want to portray, greater student involvement and influence, to give them a more tailored and broader experience, should that not also involve them being able to choose to make up for any perceived deficiencies in their course by choosing some parts of it from some of these non-standard providers?

Friedman’s “Adam Smith U” could really be just around the corner now, and I don’t believe that’s a scary thing: that means the academy having self-determination, being able to cluster together in whatever arrangements they feel best suit their research activities and so on, and being able to disseminate their new knowledge to a far wider ranger of students.  Not “outsourcing” so much as putting more autonomy and independence into the hands of students and the academy itself and away from the corporate bodies of the current university system.

It might mean reinventing the role of the central degree awarding body, the university itself, perhaps as somewhere that provides just one residential year of foundation study skills and liberal arts education before becoming personal study guides to more offsite students, accompanying them through a far wider range of externally provided modules, as sponsors and research centres for fewer but bigger specialisms and so on, but again, one might hold out the prospect of them reaching far more people, far less expensively, and bringing more people into Higher Education than even up till now (and grabbing a bigger slice of the enormous potential market in developing countries for more flexible, lower cost, ways of gaining university education).

“Adam Smith U”