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Celebrity professors, online lectures and employability classes

Sir Michael Barber’s “revolution” in higher education.

An empty lecture theatre at the Sorbonne.
The Richelieu lecture theatre at the Sorbonne in Paris. Photo: Getty Images.

A new report from the IPPR entitled “An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead” warns that British universities are at risk if they fail to respond to competition from abroad. “Why would you go to the quite ordinary lecture by a quite ordinary lecturer when you can get Niall Ferguson online?” Sir Michael Barber, “deliverology” expert and Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, asked John Humphrys on Monday’s Today programme.

Barber claims that “the Ronaldo effect” will mean the best lecturers – of course, crowd-pleasing lecturers and first class educators are not one and the same – can “command the circumstances they want and move from one university to another”. He praises the Employability Centre at Exeter University, and UCL’s plans for a “university quarter” in Stratford, aimed at cashing in on the booming local economy. In every case, two assumptions are made: the first is that help finding a job is the only reason university is worth attending. The second is that higher education should bolster a thriving economy, rather than the other way around.

Over the weekend I read the Observer’s interview with Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov. Taking the example of the press, Morozov said: “The newspaper offers something very different from Google’s aggregators. It offers a value system, an idea of what matters in the world. Newspapers need to start articulating that value.” Could it be that universities are falling into the same trap journalism has? Providers of higher education must engage with technology, but they should not be co-opted into propagating the fallacy of their own irrelevance. They set the intellectual agenda. Without them, aggregators are worthless.

The idea that a student’s progress might be assessed by a local “quite ordinary” robot-lecturer, while the star of the show telecasts from his or her luxury digs at Harvard, is uniquely alienating. It says nothing of the reality that the most effective tutors are often the least well-known on campus. A remote lecturer can create an electric one-hour show, but where are they when a student breaks down in tears before their final exams, when they confess they don’t know how to footnote properly, or want to take their work in a different direction to their peers. The emphasis upon star quality amplifies the deadening mandate for “impact” in tertiary teaching and research. “You can hold academics accountable for the quality of their teaching, as well as their research,” Barber told Humphrys on Today, as bleary-eyed lecturers nationwide veered their cars into oncoming traffic.

Many recent technological innovations have presented opportunities for thrift, but also for profit, enthusiastically spun by corporations and neoliberal politicians with so little faith in humanity they can barely comprehend that any motivating factor exists beyond the fiscal. Any opposition is tactically neutralised by the indivisible rhetoric of austerity: deficit, competition, growth. Nothing else matters. Our aim as a nation appears to be a return to late-90s levels of wealth, where the excess happily leaked over into social spending. But it was all a lie, and we risk making the same mistakes, if “growth” remains our sole reason for being.

We need a high-quality, universally available education system that will prepare young people for the realities of modern life. This does not mean ripping them off by lying about their future earning potential, nor cheating them by cutting down on university faculty and facilities, citing blue sky misconceptions about technology, openness and competition as an excuse.

“There are two things that a physical university can do that an online university can’t…” Barber said during his interview. Recognise that students are individuals with independent educational needs, not consumers who will be content with a one-size-fits-all syllabus, thought I. “One is, it can contribute to regional and city economy, second they can offer mentoring, support and experiences.”

In his interview Morotzov was keen to emphasise the ways in which technology companies can smuggle themselves inside our institutions, promising quality and universality, while eating them from the inside out. “We did not elect them to help us solve our problems. Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there forever.” The IPPR report, written as it was by Pearson employees – the world’s largest educational “delivery” specialist – is wrong to suggest the biggest threat to UK universities is optional online lectures from Singapore. The biggest threat is that they will talk themselves out of the discourse on education for good.