Thursday, 16 February 2006

Higher Education a Triumph. Hmm.

I wrote this for the Times Higher Education Supplement at the end of 2006. To be honest, I don't know what to do about most universities - they seem to have sooooo lost direction. There are heaps of good people inside them, but they are lions led by donkeys in many cases, sadly. In the Uk I find Bournemouth to be an exception - few meetings and many conversations make for an agile institution, generally. I've tried (and am still trying) to help, this piece is just part of that effort...

The article signalled some of my concerns, making some fun comparisons between HE in the UK today and the now failed UK motorcycle industry back in the last century.

I was astonished by the level of warm support that this all triggered - my mailbox was awash with VERY supportive correspondents - from current lecturers and students to now-retired vice chancellors. Interestingly they all said "yes, yes, yes!".

History confirms that, without exception, any industry with this level of dissatisfaction across employees and customers has very little time left. Perhaps we should all turn our attention to what we build instead.

My two-pennyworth is that whatever we build to supercede them ought to do a much better job on inclusion and access... and quality. I can't see why we can't achieve at least 66% participation rate for example. Anyway, here's the piece. Overseas readers will be helped to know that a famous UK motorcycle brand, that all but vanished, was the Triumph (hence the tile).

The UK has a knack of losing wonderful assets. No sooner do we have something world leading, than we begin a gentle journey of complacency and poor vision that too often misses key trends and leaves us sidelined. We invented skiing and football, but struggle nowadays to compete. Our sports car industry was once the toast of the world; now just crumbs remain. In 1908 we topped the Olympic medal table, in 2004 we placed 10th. As we move towards the end of the 21st century's first decade it is alarming to find higher education exhibiting all the misplaced confidence and poor vision of these illustrious previous failures.

Contexts, cultures and conditions change. Sadly, numbers are dropping fast: in 1971 we had 14.2 million under 16 year olds, by 2033 we have less than 9 million in a growing population. Chidren are scarce in the UK and in schools the policy mantra is, quite rightly, that "every child matters". One response of course is to look overseas for university students rather than boosting partcipation rates at home. Last year, the British Council anticipated that demand for higher education places from overseas students could spiral over the next 15 years from around 270,000 to more than 800,000 by 2020. By looking outside Europe income from overseas fees is expected to increase from £1,125m in 2003/04 to £1,621m in 2007/08 with considerable growth beyond. But ominously the growth of overseas students in Chinese universities grew by 43% between 2003 qnd 2004 and China expects to rapidly become a net importer of students.

There is time, just, for a fresh look at UK higher education today. The 21st century is emphatically not the 20th century; then most of our economic success stories might be characterised as "building big things that did things for people", from a national railway network to the National Curriculum. Content was king, education was delivered, wisdom was received. Encyclopedia were sold door to door and knowledge was valued. It was all one way. But in the 21st century all the success stories, from Google and YouTube to the huge growth in our voluntary sector, can be characterised as "helping people to help each other". In economic terms knowledge has become a free good; encyclopedia are remaindered. In this symmetrical world of peer to peer endeavour, companies are discovering the power of agile, collegiate structures with organic project teams. They embrace collaboration and communication above all else. At precisely the same time, our universities appear to be rushing headlong backwards into the 20th century inventing 1970s hierarchies of pro-vice chancellor upon pro-vice chancellor, personal accountability and stultifying accounting procedures.

Meanwhile our schools are producing a newly broad portfolio of potential success: children are podcasting, YouTubing, blogging, performing and animating their way through their learning together. A seductive wave of effective and gender flat performance based science teaching is storming through from Eastern Europe, while project based work is evidencing remarkable ambition and achievment both earlier and faster. These and other global trends like personalisation are pushing the old "delivery" model of learning, with its one-size-fits-all, aside. The result is a generation of ambitious learners worldwide, running way ahead of their criterion referencing; confident, ambitious, achieving and diverse. Faced with this onslaught, universities already look like structurally declining industries. Standards have been confused with standardisation, quality control has been confused with quality assurance. If 21st century learners have a fault, it is their impatience. All round the world they love the progress they can make and are ambitious to do better yet. They will not "power down" to come to school, nor to university.

Currently many universities simplistically look only for productivity gains from technology. Their basic web applications with rudimentary chat forums and pdf notes are emphatically NOT learning, they are delivery. They are a million miles from the complex peer to peer environments with their rich granularity of discourse and temporal sophistication that characterise the world our learners inhabit. If HE is to survive in the UK it will need to radically alter its cost base, to properly embrace inclusion, to vow never to waste another learner, and to be ambitious for improving standards. Really significant assumptions need to be tested (we may not need campuses, but we will need a sense of collegiality). 6% of every university's turnover should be devoted to learning research. Learning is what they all do and they need to do it much better to survive. The now collapsed British mororcycle industry didn't think it needed to research the emergent needs of its new customers. If I say that in 2006 the UK university sector looks like a Triumph, you'll know exactly what I mean.

© Prof Stephen Heppell 2006