Monday, 21 February 2011

Do we still need bricks-and-mortar universities?

Nowadays, with high quality IT services, including high-speed internet access, pretty much ubiquitous, and with distance-learning provision of higher education proving ever more popular, one has to ask whether there is still 'room' for the traditional bricks-and-mortar university. Perhaps this long hallowed institutional form has reached, perhaps even passed already, its sell-by date, as a result of advances in technology. For nowadays, the students can be anywhere when they study; and academic staff can work from home increasingly effectively, communicating with their students mostly by e-mail.

Even the administrative side of delivering university courses might not need much physical space, as admin staff can also work from home and might only need to come into a 'central office' for meetings and such like, perhaps hot-desking when not actually meeting. So who needs an office any longer? Moreover, even meetings might soon be conducted increasingly on line as video phone calls (including conference calls) become more common and improve in quality.

Evidence for this IT-based and interactive view of higher education can be found in admission figures for the UK's Open University, which are rising rapidly and include an increasing fraction of younger people who would formerly have gone to a conventional university; in the fast growth of distance learning provision; and in the rapidly expanding literature on subjects like e-learning, using IT to support higher education, and the like. An example of the latter is an interesting article in the latest issue of the BBC's science magazine, Focus, entitled 'Education 2.0'. This makes the case for a new approach to higher education, emphasising that this would not merely be driven by evolving technology, but that it would also be encouraged by rising fees charged by the traditional universities.

The article does, however, sound a note of warning, by pointing out that university education is more than just a matter of learning new knowledge - where modern technology can definitely help - but is also about personal development. At a traditional university, the presumption has always been that our students not only learn about their respective academic subject areas, but that their social skills also develop, along with their self confidence, through a mix of joint projects, supervised activities (e.g. dissertations), presentations, and simply mixing with fellow students from diverse backgrounds. At present, it seems to me, these essential aspects of higher education are not delivered at all, or at best not very effectively, through IT-based and distance learning modes of higher education. Given this, I would argue that the traditional university still offers a very substantial 'value added' to the student, as compared to more modern modes of delivering higher education.

This 'value added', though, is something we need to nurture, especially these days when universities are facing severe budgetary pressure. It is all too tempting to save resources by cutting out a tutorial here, a seminar there, but this dilutes the learning experience for our students and weakens our claim to be offering something massively superior to a computer screen and a load of distance learning material. We surely want our students to graduate as people who have matured and changed enormously during their university careers, and that isn't going to happen if we go on cutting back on teaching hours to save resources. A good traditional university, housed in real bricks-and-mortar buildings, is inherently costly, and we should not pretend otherwise by trying to do it all on the cheap, as we are often under pressure to do.

Personally, I think the traditional university education with lots of face-to-face contact between academic staff and their students is a wonderful thing - our students learn to think for themselves, to be creative, and it's a sheer delight to see that happening. I'm really not convinced it can or does happen so much via the more modern modes of higher education - but you never know, in another 10 or 20 years I might take a different view. Meanwhile, I shall continue to enjoy my individual office in my traditional university, a lovely environment both for thinking about research and for interacting with students.

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