Just took a quick peek at the new JISC report “Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology” prompted by a blog about it by Sarah Bartlett at Talis.
The report is set in the context of both an increasing number of overseas students, attracted by the UK’s educational reputation, and also the desire for widening access to universities. I am not convinced by the idea that technology is necessarily the way to go for either of these goals as it is just so much harder and more expensive to produce good quality learning materials without massive economies of scale (as the OU has). Also the report seems to mix up open access to research outputs and open access to learning.
However, it was not these issues, that caught my eye, but a quote by Thomas Kealey vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the UKs only private university. For three years Buckingham has come top of UK student satisfaction surveys, and Kealey says:
This is the third year that we’ve come top because we are the only university in Britain that focuses on the student rather than on government or regulatory targets. (Edgeless University, p. 21)
Of course, those in the relevant departments of government would say that the regulations and targets are inteded to deliver education quality, but as so often this centralising of control, (started paradoxically in the UK during the Thatcher years), serves instead to constrain real quality that comes from people not rules.
In 1992 we saw the merging of the polytechnic and university sectors in the UK. As well as diffferences in level of education, the former were tradtionally under the auspices of local goverment, whereas the latter were independent educational isntitutions. Those in the ex-polytechnic sector hoped to emulate the levels of attaiment and ethos of the older universities. Instead, in recent years the whole sector seems to have been dragged down into a bureacratic mire where paper trails take precidence over students and scholarship.
Obviously private institutions, as Kealey suggests, can escape this, but I hope that current and future government can have the foresight and humility to let go some of this centralised control, or risk destroying the very system it wishes to grow.