The Edgeless University - Guardian debate

26 Mar 2010

I chaired a fascinating debate at The Guardian yesterday on the future for universities.

The theme was set by the recent Demos pamphlet by Peter Bradwell entitled 'The Edgeless University' which argues that the current financial crisis for higher education can be a moment of 'rebirth' if universities embrace open access, technological innovation, and a genuinely international approach.

The panel of vice-chancellors and other leading experts warmed to the theme with some vigorous ideas for the way ahead.

There was broad agreement that universities will have to diversify and specialise to survive, that they will have to be more market sensitive, and that they must be more open and sharing.

There were even some who said it would be healthy for the sector if some universities were allowed to go bust - this, it was argued, would be better than the expensive and wasteful mergers we have seen.

Technology would be at the heart of these changes, allowing collaboration on research beyond the borders of the 'edgeless' university and allowing access to lectures, seminars and library resources to students from both local and global communities through online access.

However, alongside the concept of the 'edgeless' university there also had to be retention of the values of collegiality and of guidance. This led to the suggestion that academics would have to be 'sherpas' guiding - albeit sometimes remotely - students and fellow researchers and offering expert advice and quality assurance.

The comments (which were unattributable to encourage frank views) included:

'We are heading for a messier but more co-operative sector'.

'There will be more differentiation and more diversity - with more specialist universities - as the money goes down'.

'I absolutely think that we need a university to go bust. In the USA they are allowed to go bust but not over here. Mergers are usually an expensive mistake'. This HE leader felt there had to be much more recourse to the market. 

'Universities should move to new models on recruiting overseas students. Not just recruiting here or to overseas-based campuses but partnering with private institutions abroad'.

One vice chancellor said his university already had plans to have 50% of its students overseas within 5 year. This would be achieved by growing overseas student numbers, not by reducing domestic student numbers. It would be achieved by working with private partners in Asia. The challenge, said the VC, would be to make sure the students overseas got the same quality of education, and the same sense of being part of the university, as those in the UK. Modern technology was key to that but there would also be movement of staff between countries.

'We need more liquid learning' ....with open access to research, collaboration with outside bodies and between universities.

One university leader said their institution had been putting lectures up on itunes and now had over 16 million people outside the UK downloading these lectures. It also opened up its libraries for free access to anyone in the local - or indeed wider - community.

'There is a risk that the edgeless university will be depersonalised'.

'We need to have a private system supported by public money but without government control'.

'What is the appetite for the sector to be market-driven rather than public finance driven?'

A full account of the debate will appear in The Education Guardian on 13th April.

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