I pulled no punches at the time that the university fees decision was an awful one, satisfying nobody.  With the results in and most universities deciding to charge at the top end of the artificially narrow window personally I think the trouble is only beginning.  And it’s going to be serious both for universities and for the politicians who cobbled together this other “miserable compromise”.

Universities move slowly, of necessity: people need to know the costs they are committing to before they start applying, 18 months or more up front; then seeing the outcome of that “market” will take several years; then universities realise it’s maybe not working out as well as they hoped, and we go through the whole process again, taking more years.  Even if there is a surge of new private provision reducing the costs as the government hopes, it will take several years to prove itself.  And this ambition could be severely hamstrung by being tied into the same regulatory structure as existing universities as recommended by HEPI this week.

Cambridge Graduation
Cambridge Graduation

Anyone hoping that the situation will settle down and the fees decision be vindicated so as to be electorally neutral, let alone positive, in time for the next General Election is deluded.   It may be possible, however, to make it so by changing the goalposts again now, admitting error and implementing a better system before this buggers’ muddle even goes live.

But what follows is going to make uncomfortable reading I fear, for colleagues especially, as much as it gives me little pleasure to write it, because it of course affects our future job security and opportunities in the current Higher Education system in the UK, and it is going to sound a little like John Laurie in Dad’s Army.  But if we do look into the crystal ball and respond appropriately, we are not necessarily doomed.  If we don’t we may well be.

Basically my worries focus around three points:

  • the top of a “bubble” (as discussed here, here and here for instance, analyses with which I broadly agree) is exactly the wrong time to crystalise higher costs for consumers (the prospective students) who may begin to feel that a. they are not worth it, and b. may burst soon so wait a while.
  • this decade in particular a load of new pedagogical techniques, availability of low cost or free but nevertheless high value information, learning materials and so on is really going to hit us.
  • as a result of the above, people may well be unimpressed by traditional costly on-campus “single source” higher education and be much more amenable to alternatives that are already springing up outside the formal system.

Creative Destruction

The potential of these big pressures is, I believe, effectively to render obsolete a model of higher education that has lasted for centuries.  On the plus side, the irony is that if it does so, it will likely realise the policy aims of many – for wider access (globally, and especially amongst the global poor), for life long learning.  It may also reinvigorate the idea of learning for learning’s sake, and in the most beleaguered subjects like humanities at that, because it will be cheaper to participate in courses not directly aiming at increasing earning power, and easier to fit around the rest of our busy lives.  And, the big win for governments at least, it will genuinely remove the burden from the taxpayer.

And though afterwards it may be tempting to look back and blame the traditional university model for holding humanity back, acting in a protectionist and exclusive, elitist manner with information and knowledge, it should be remembered that what is driving this is not the universities but the new availability of high speed, easy access, quality knowledge that only arrived with the internet.  And if universities choose to adapt, and quickly, then they may still retain their place as amongst the best providers of rounded, quality education “packages”, albeit ones that may look very different from today’s degrees, delivered by what might look very different from today’s “academy”.

The best part of a decade ago now, some US universities started to put lectures, teaching materials and so on onto the internet.  Some were state funded and thought of it as pay-back for state funding that more people should have access to the results of that largesse.  Some were private and presumably seen as a way of showing off their wares to attract students.  In a classic case of “over-estimated at two years, under-estimated at ten” these got a lot of hype but it is probably fair to say they didn’t achieve the penetration they were expected to.

Maturing Technology

In the interim, along comes podcasting, iTunesU and other ways of enabling many more knowledge producers, in universities for sure, but also, crucially, in much smaller organisations like think tanks, learned societies and simply interest groups, to get their material out there too.  Doug French of the Mises Institute gave a great lecture recently showing how much of a difference this has made to that relatively small organisation.  Throw into the mix what I think has been a higher standard of “public education” big media factual output with academic “superstars” and “public intellectuals” like Robert Winston, Marcus du Sautoy, Niall Ferguson, David Starkey, Andrew Wiles and many others.  We have TED Talks, Intelligence Squared debates, RSA Lectures bringing all this knowledge potentially to billions of people.  And, in my unschooled opinion at least, we have fantastic output such as Michael Sandel’s Harvard Justice series of lectures.

Then there are organisations like the Commonwealth of Learning (headed by Sir John Daniel, a former Vice-Chancellor of the doyen of distance learning the UK’s Open University) trying to find ways of delivering quality higher education in the (mostly) poor commonwealth countries.  India and China are catching up fast, so many northern world western universities other than genuine global leaders may see a lucrative international market squeezed significantly.

But for me, it seems to come back to cost for the consumer.  I have just completed two and am currently undertaking a third module at the Mises Academy.  Each has cost me less than £100 for between six and eight weeks involving three contact hours each, online, live, and, I have to say, very personal feeling it is too.  There may be two hundred plus participants in my current module, but the lecturer is always right in front of me, the volume always at my comfort level, and I’m in my choice of environment, not a desultory, ageing, possibly windowless, 200 seat lecture theatre with the two hundred flavours of deodorant that often involves!  And using chat software I am right next to the class swot wherever I sit, gaining insights and covert explanations of things the lecturer is talking about from everyone else in the class.

Perhaps because it’s already all happening in virtual space, it seems very natural to fire off emails and online discussion posts to both lecturer and fellow students between actual lectures and office hours sessions.  All my reading list is online, and free, and there is quite a lot of it, even compared with the reading lists for the modules I expect to be taking when I start my degree next year.  Administration is unobtrusive: I can sign up for modules in two minutes online, my transcript and module history is just there, before, during and after the module actually takes place.

In the new regime, each of these modules will cost somewhere in the order of ten times the Mises modules, and whilst I am sure they are all excellent, I have to take what I’m given in terms of lecturers.  By which I mean people who are employed and working physically in Oxford. Mises can use lecturers and teaching assistants from anywhere on the planet (on an earlier module the lecturer was in Texas, the TA in Taiwan, and the hundred students from every continent). And of course were I trying to construct a degree program online I’d likely want to patronise a number of such expert providers, so long as they were all accredited toward a progam somewhere.


As if all these pressures were not enough, there remains the perennial question of just how many young people in particular should be doing degrees straight from school, whether some subjects might be better suited to a more vocational sort of training, as some of them were until not so long ago, and whether others are maybe for interest after you’ve got a career under your belt.  From my perspective it seems a number of careers have started to demand degrees as the usual route to entry as a way of employers or professional bodies externalising training costs they used to bear for themselves first to the state and now to the student themselves.  James Côté and Anton L. Allahar, Canadian authors of “Ivory Tower Blues” call this phenomenon “credentialisation” and it was certainly getting underway when I was a eighteen – I was once told in an interview that if I didn’t get a degree for what was essentially a market trading job, the firm’s American counterparts would not talk to me if they found out.

You may find all that excessively gloomy; for my part I find it horrifying for the future of many of our institutions. Many are still making only baby steps to counter these threats, with long term strategies that assume the current university model is still here to stay, with but a few tweaks.  I know that there were many predictions a decade and more ago that universities as we know them would not be here by now that have evidently not come true.  So this too may be no more than a repeat of that, but these pressures are more real than then.  As I say “over-estimated at two years, under-estimated at ten.”

But public funding, regulation and protection from competition, together with expansionary targets to get more people to participate in higher education have shielded us from many of these pressures.  Students have been protected from bearing the full costs of their on-campus experience, even though overall costs have risen steadily.  The new regime will, however, mark a paradigm change: notwithstanding that students will not pay up front the prospect of a thirty year payment of 9% extra marginal tax will I am sure concentrate minds, especially if the sort of alternatives above do come on the market and the graduate employment market in many degree based careers remains difficult and potential earnings payback often marginal.

Networks of Learning

So, how might a university based HE experience look in the future?  How can we continue to pay the bills that keep me and a couple of thousand colleagues in rations?  Nearly ten years ago now, when my own institution was preparing its previous management strategy, I put forward what with hindsight was a naive paper with a germ of what I considered a good idea, called the “Manifesto for a Mutual University”.  The idea was that instead of the university being a monolithic institution, managing all aspects of administration, teaching and learning delivery and research, it should be thought of more as a network of co-operatives, possibly worker owned, even better multi-stakeholder group owned, so students, staff, employers and even the local community could be a part of the ownership and decision making of individual units.

The “University as Corporation” would be a secondary co-op to which all these primary co-ops belonged and which could co-ordinate services the primary co-ops needed, be the degree awarding body and perhaps arrange a limited amount of “income redistribution” to help fund some courses that were thought of as essential to the work of a university but not easy to make money on in themselves (like the current worries about humanities subjects perhaps).

With all the technological and pedagogical advances over the intervening years, I now think that these units could be quite dispersed, not necessarily even all members of that secondary co-op, but providers of individual modules or whole courses that the degree awarding body, the university itself, recognised as part of their network of accredited associates.  These might be organised around, for example, significant research groups.

Take the Michael Sandel example.  He can fill the 1,000 seat Sanders Lecture Theatre on campus back home, but people around the world want to take his module too.  But they may need a study guide more local to them who can help them get the most out of the online lectures, materials and the reading list.  Individual “Sandel Study Guides” might attend a week’s master class every year at Harvard and be accredited by them to tutor the Sandel course back home.  Harvard monetizes the international interest in this course via the fees for this.  Then these individual “Sandel Study Guides” have businesses of their own offering distance learners assistance, maybe even on other campuses as part of another institution’s offer, for a fee.  Other “Study Guides” might put together courses of their own from Open Educational Resources, pay to be accredited by one or more degree awarding universities and collect fees from providing those courses to students who will, eventually, be awarded their degree from one of them.  Others may be offered by existing learned institutes, societies and professional bodies.

It may be, as David D Friedman suggested nearly forty years ago now in his “Machinery of Freedom (pdf)” – particularly the chapter entitled “Adam Smith U” in part II – that some students, probably mostly those just out of the more planned and organised environment of secondary education may not be armed with the wherewithal to put together such a program on their own.  These might opt to do a year away at the degree awarding institution first, with perhaps a broad curriculum of liberal arts, critical thinking and study skills (and fun, and gaining soft skills, “graduate attributes” and so on), then pay an annual fee for personal tutors and summer schools provided by that institution to guide them through more advanced study with diverse providers, and to verify their learning outcomes.

Less is more

This might produce a whole new range of income streams for institutions and for private providers accredited by them (but who in turn don’t need to become full blown universities in order to participate in this market), enable many more students to study, with a greater choice of providers and at lower cost, and allow more time for the academy to engage in research and the creation of new knowledge that can then be spread wider than their home institution giving them a wider reach and greater kudos.

It may reduce the number of actual degree awarding institutions – but better that perhaps than waiting for this artificial price bubble to burst and the more conservative institutions reliant on traditional models to go bust.  With the right technology (perhaps with accreditation documented by something similar to my earlier idea about “Networked IDs“) it would likely reduce the central bureaucracy of each institution, allowing them to focus on research and dissemination of knowledge – which is, after all, what they are about.

Some will no doubt think this all pie in the sky, or worse, scaremongering.  What do I know anyway?  I just know what I see and read.  I’m looking forward to starting my traditional three year campus-based course in September, but my experience of Mises modules and so on tells me there is another way.  And I have the luxury of not being held to this vision as senior institutional decision makers would be.  And I *think* that this decade will be the one in which university life and study changes forever, and for the better.  I hope the people who put together the fees policy are ready to take the blame, or the credit, for this great upheaval.

Image, Cambridge Graduation, from inkelv1122’s FlickR photostream on a Creative Commons Attribute, Non-Commercial Licence

Universities Challenged: There may be trouble aHEad