Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Glastonversity?

Posted by Jock Coats on 4th June 2010

Imagine some green valley, most of the year covered in cows and things, that for a long weekend in summer turns into a mini city, with a hundred thousand campers having fun in the sun, or perhaps the mud.  There are all sorts of activities laid on – classes in environmental issues, alternative therapy tents and food and drink of every description, but the top billing acts are not the Gorillaz or U2.

Image taken from geeklawyer's Flickr.com photostream under an attribution-non-commercial-share-alike Creative Commons License from http://www.flickr.com/photos/geeklawyer/7670882/sizes/o/

Prof Brian Cox explaining some astro-physics?

At this festival those honours would go to the likes of Niall Ferguson on the pyramid stage, Marianne Talbot’s giving her “Romp through Philosophy” on the other stage and over in some corner there Marcus du Sautoy rambling on about zeta functions.  The international arena has, I dunno, a lecture series by Elinor Ostrom, interspersed with fun with Elizabeth Blackburn talking about chromosomes.  Think Glastonbury on Ritalin, TED with tents, the WEA wired.

Welcome to “Glastonversity” – one possible vision of where some parts of higher education may be going – one in which global superstar academics do tours of a festival circuit, lecturing to thousands of, well, screaming fans maybe, at a time…

One of the rare pleasures of being a governor is that occasionally you get invited to events to hear the great and the good of the university sector speak.  Last night was one such where a number of governors and SMT had dinner with David Eastwood, currently Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham University and a member of the Browne Commission into the funding of Higher Education and previously Chief Executive of HEFCH the funing body through which government money, and the attached strings are channeled to English universities.

He had been asked along to Brookes to be one of the external people on the interview panel for today’s balloon debate that will decide which of five current deans is throw out of the Executive Dean basket and so he came down last night so a group of us could grill him on more strategic issues for higher education more widely.  It was certainly not, overall anyway, good news.  The “good years” are over for HE, expect very significant cuts in the level of public funding coming to all universities, and tougher times for institutions that make wrong strategic decisions and so on.

Those of us with long memories of Brookes might think back to a series of discussions facilitated by the then new Chancellor Helena Kennedy.  I can never remember the title, but it was a look at what Brookes and higher education in general might look like I think in 2005, though it might have bee about 2015.  There was lots of talk about technology and distance learning and what might have seemed fanciful notions such as degree structures that would not involve students being here for more than a few intensive weeks at a time and so on.

But there’s a saying amongst future-gazers that the impact of big systemic changes are often over-estimated at two years out and under-estimated at ten years.  The growth of the internet itself is a classic example – lots of investment went into the “dot com” companies in the late nineties expecting that to be the take-off of mass penetration, in which everyone would do everything on line from then on.  It proved a flop and caused a min-reciession on its own, but now ten years later we take so much of what was anticipated in that bubble for granted.

With the prospect of really quite deep cuts prompting the most innovative institutions to look at other ways of generating income or doing things better for the same or less cost, I suspect we are now closer to that ten years point in higher education.  Think about a world in which “blended learning” is not about whether you do some bits face to face, some bits online, some bits from home and so on, but about whether you get taught by these emerging global superstars whilst attending, perhaps, but not necessarily, your local institution that is a part of a network including the superstars’ host institutions.

David had a lot to say last night about how if we are entering a period where market based decisions, and innovation to stay ahead of the competition it might lead institutions into broader, deeper sorts of collaboration with others – perhaps a better known institution taking over a less well known one that is faltering for lack of public funding for taught students, perhaps mergers of equals to capitalise on their joint portfolio of “academic superstars”, perhaps, yes, it has to be said what with Apollo’s take-over last year of BPP, perhaps for-profit corporations taking over some institutions.

But my vision was of world leading institutions entering overseas (to them) markets by building networks of collaborating institutions that feed each other students, network their academics, share their back offices, collaborate on research – so perhaps Yale wants to have a real European partners – could they put some of their huge resources (their endowment is bigger than the UK’s annual government spend on Higher Education – I know, stocks and flows and all that but it puts it into some perspective -or to put it another way, their annual operating budget is something like twenty times that of ours for a similar number of students) into a joint venture with, say, the likes of Brookes.

And in the middle of that maybe comes the summer academic festival – maybe “Global Gathering of Minds” would be a better name. What do you think?  Where do you think higher education might be heading?  One thing is for sure, institutions that stand still, or try to defend old ways of working just because they have history in their favour, are not going to go anywhere, and may not survive.

[I know, you probably all think I’m barking, but I can make some good futurology calls – if Blackwell’s had listened to me in 1994 the biggest online retailer in the world might not now be named after a South American river for example, natch!]

[Image taken from geeklawyer’s Flickr.com photostream under an attribution-non-commercial-share-alike Creative Commons License from http://www.flickr.com/photos/geeklawyer/7670882/sizes/o/]

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