Thursday, 8 May 2014

The heart or the head?

Idealism and reality seem currently to be clashing in higher education, and the turbulence is bringing some interesting things to the surface.

On the one hand, there’s an idealism inherent in the notion of higher education, which sees it as a liberating force for the individual and society and that there is a moral duty to deliver the enlightened world which could arise if more people benefited from a higher education. And in the UK context, that strand of thinking was given a boost by the introduction of considerably increased tuition fees for undergraduate study in England in 2012. The notion that access to higher education should not be rationed by affordability, as well as provoking riots in Trafalgar Square, led to some radical initiatives, such as the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, which enables people to access a ‘free co-operative higher education’ and the Free University of Liverpool, which has now wound up.

And on the other hand, the gritty reality that the traditional form of higher education in the UK (ie full-time, attending a campus away from home) is an expensive business to deliver, with a spiral of expectation created by higher fees, a focus on the non-academic aspects of the student experience, leading to phenomena like the ‘athletics arms race’, on which Paul Greatrix has blogged, and a yearly cycle of what-more-have-we-got-to-justify-high-fees?. Sustaining a large sector, which employs over 450,000 people in the UK (HESA staff return 2012-13, table A), requires a lot of money. Which means you’re straight back to the argument about where the money comes from, who pays, and whether it higher education funding is more like a progressive tax or a means test which in itself acts as a barrier.

(This reminds me of a chant during a late-1980’s demo against student loans:

"Education should be free
For the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie!")

The BBC flagged another interesting initiative – the University of the People. This claims to be free if people need it; to be online (but not dependent upon high specification technology); to be international; and, crucially, to offer US accredited degrees. If it is what it seems to say it is – voluntary, humanitarian – then it clearly sits with the heart not the head. And if it is offering proper degrees of a high standard, then it will surely attract a lot of students.

It’s too early to declare that this is the shape of things to come: the challenge of supporting a few hundred students online is different from the challenge of supporting tens of thousands, and the initial enthusiasm may wear off. But what if the University of the People accepted credit transfer from completed MOOCs? A lot of business models might be seriously disrupted, and the heart-versus-head question might become starker still.

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