Marginal Revolution launch an online university

Development Economics, the first course, begins in October.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, editors of the hugely popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, have long been advocates of the potential of the internet, and IT more generally, to disrupt the business of education. Now they're putting their money where their mouths are, and launching MRUniversity.

Cowen lays out some of the principles:

1. The product is free (like this blog), and we offer more material in less time.

2. Most of our videos are short, so you can view and listen between tasks, rather than needing to schedule time for them. The average video is five minutes, twenty-eight seconds long. When needed, more videos are used to explain complex topics.

3. No talking heads and no long, boring lectures. We have tried to reconceptualize every aspect of the educational experience to be friendly to the on-line world.

5. We offer tests and quizzes.

10. We are pleased to announce that our first course will begin on October 1.

The real question for the nascent university – which is building on Cowen and Tabarrok's actual jobs at George Mason University in Virginia – is whether it can prove some of its founders' theories on higher education correct. There is, after all, no doubt that the course will be informative, entertaining and widely subscribed.

But there is widespread belief that the true value of education lies in its signalling effects, not actually in the knowledge imparted. So when an employer demands a BA, they don't actually care about whether someone knows English Literature to a degree level, they just want to hire the sort of person who does – smart, hard-working, focused and so on.

This is often the hurdle that online education fails to clear. Despite the fact that distance learning can be just as good at imparting knowledge as a traditional university education, the signals it gives to employers remain below-par. But Cowen particularly has been outspoken in his belief that that needn't be the case.

This, then, is his opportunity to put that belief into practice. Obviously, with just one course on offer, nobody is going to be getting a full degree from MRUniversity any time soon – but will people put it on their CVs? And will employers actually care if they do?

MRU's logo.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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