The global pandemic of 2020 has exposed many things about our society. Amongst these is the issue of whether we still need universities. I am not suggesting we do not need higher education and training for the major professions, I am referring to the enormous infrastructures that take up increasing amounts of space in university towns and the bureaucracy and expense that this entails.
Students are really questioning the need to borrow and spend vast amounts of money leading to a lifetime of debt, especially when, for a major part of 2020, students were either at home or locked in their residences. And Universities UK, a body purporting to represent our increasingly out of touch university vice chancellors, has recently called for an increase in student fees.
One thing that never appears to be on their agenda is the question of how, collectively, they could deliver higher education more economically and, possibly, to an even larger audience.
The truth is that the recent ‘step change’ to online learning, something that had been underway for many years, worked well. Many did not like it on both sides of the experience but that does not detract from the fact that it worked.
This is possibly the future for higher education, and I cannot be alone in thinking we could deliver higher education more economically and begin to dismantle the large personal fiefdoms of dictatorial and megalomaniacal vice chancellors in favour of something that offered genuine value for money to students.
Of course, some buildings must remain, laboratories for example, some provision must be made for students who may have less than ideal living arrangements to study, and clinical subjects will still require genuine human contact.
But for a vast array of arts and humanities subjects, the physical infrastructure of a university is not necessary and that great status symbol of the academic – an office of their own – must surely be redundant. The time has come for some economies of scale in the delivery of higher education.
The number of institutions calling themselves British universities presently stands at over one hundred and fifty. In 1990 there were approximately fifty. The increase in the number of universities began under a Conservative government and has increased under successive governments of both persuasions.
Most major cities have a university, and many have more than one. Edinburgh has four universities and London has forty. The quality of these universities varies considerably, but all have pockets of excellence and it cannot have escaped the imagination of our educational planners and politicians, even under the present models of delivery that we do not, for example, need nine departments of sociology or even five medical schools in London.
But now the need for the physical proximity of lecturers and students and even being present online at the same time can be seriously questioned. When students in some arts and social science subjects have fewer than four lectures a week and libraries no longer contain books, what need have we for rows of lecture theatres and all that goes with them: heating; lighting and expensive projection equipment? It could be argued that we have none.
Tony Blair’s target of fifty percent of school-leavers attending university has not been achieved but, with forty per cent currently attending, the demand for university education is high so the market is likely to persist. For over twenty years, the distances students travel from home to university has steadily declined with a great many students attending their local university and staying in the family home for economic reasons. This is another nail in the coffin of arguments for large institutions and, especially, expensive student accommodation.
Of course, one group of students that has been increasing over the past few decades, specifically for the financial benefits they bring to universities, is international students. For some countries in the Far East (principally China) and the Middle East (principally Saudi Arabia) – both major sources of international students – online learning has traditionally been frowned on.
But these countries have all had to adapt to online learning and with the likelihood of having to learn to live with COVID-19 in perpetuity and the need to adapt to the ‘new normal’, these barriers are falling.
Moreover, how much longer can universities, while espousing carbon neutrality, continue to be a major cause of airline emissions with a regular traffic of students arriving by air and a significant traffic of academics and administrators flying out to establish contracts and squeeze the flesh of the presidents of international institutions in the pursuit of student exchange and academic collaboration?
Therefore, a new normal for British universities can be envisaged and, finally, some good can come out of the months of misery that have been imposed on our population, including students. This new normal could envisage local higher education hubs where economies of scale are achieved by provision in any subject being reduced to a handful of the best departments across the country to which the hubs can gain access, online.
Some local physical presence will be necessary and the provision of some study space but at a significantly reduced volume, to be booked by students or lecturers for the remaining activities that continue to require some synchronised contact and for students who are unable to study at home.
Student fees, which could be reduced significantly, could be used to ensure that all students have access to good resources for online learning. Appropriate hardware and software could be made available at reduced rates and the remainder could be used to pay lecturers. This ought to be sufficient as fewer lecturers will be required.
It must be admitted, despite the recent success of online learning, that a great deal of what the normal academic provides online is poor quality. This is because most academics are not specifically trained in online teaching and in some subjects a degree of computer phobia persists.
Student fees could be focused on making academics more effective online teachers and to ensure that online material is of the highest possible quality. Savings on the current budgets allocated for staff development could be made by abandoning the vast array of training aimed at nebulous concepts such as unconscious bias training and all else within that hidden curriculum that aligns universities with the cultural Marxist agenda.
As an academic of over 30 years standing and with retirement in plain sight, I could be accused of kicking over the ladder up which I have just climbed. However, with some industries and their concomitant communities gone in the name of economic progress such as coal mining and steel manufacture, we cannot consider ourselves, as academics, to be the sole sector that is worthy of continued expansion and increasing investment.
More education must be a good thing for society but only of it is more of the best, cheaper to buy and delivered more efficiently. Mass mediocrity, which is what we are seeing in some subjects, should not be an option.
Roger Watson is a professor of nursing