Universities are blind to open-learning train set to smash up their models

Open learning and new technology are about to smash the structure of the modern university - and higher education is too distracted by its funding problems to notice.

Peter Smith, the senior vice-president of academic strategies and development for private US firm Kaplan Higher Education, said online access to university courses would end the model of higher education based on "scarcity" of places.

"Faculty and people who run universities are no longer in control," he told an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conference in Paris last week.

Dr Smith, a former assistant director general for education at Unesco, the UN cultural and educational body, challenged the focus on the financial crisis at the event, titled Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing More with Less.

Given huge growth in access to information, Dr Smith argued, the real challenge facing universities is "doing more with more". He added: "The only 'less' is the resources available to traditional universities to do what they have always done."

In another speech, Charles Reed, the chancellor of the California State University system, likened higher education to a train, with more people seeking to cram into limited places as the financial crisis squeezed jobs.

Dr Smith adapted the metaphor. "The train is headed directly at the modern university structure," he said. "It is going to hit it, and change it fundamentally."

Dr Smith said he could, for example, take Carnegie Mellon University's open-learning courses on Apple iTunes, develop a system of mentors and use the OECD's measures to evaluate student performance on graduation (the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project).

This would give "all of the resources you need for an excellent educational experience" at a low cost, he argued.

He forecast an end to the traditional model, under which universities "pay for basic research on the backs of hundreds of first-year students who sit in large classes and pay lots of money".

Denise Kirkpatrick, pro vice-chancellor for teaching, learning and quality at The Open University in the UK, highlighted the success of its open-content Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa project and said 6.5 million people had accessed its OpenLearn resources.

In another conference session, it was suggested that universities may be missing a "positive" solution to funding problems: marginally increasing student recruitment at the same fee levels, rather than raising fees or freezing recruitment.

Art Hauptman, a public policy consultant, and Philip Nolan, the registrar and deputy president of University College Dublin, argued that there were no sound data to show whether marginal recruitment increases would diminish quality.

There was also debate on university rankings. Dr Reed described them as a "disease", dismissing the argument that "Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley are absolutely the best universities in the world".

Those universities are "different, not better", he said, adding that all institutions "add value".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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