The Rise of the Free University: Some Thoughts (Session 3 of #LFE2012)

There is discussion in the higher education community at the moment on the issue of treating students as customers: that their paying fees and filling out surveys on how satisfied they are with services provided makes them out to be consumers rather than partners in the education sector. I also don’t agree with the commodification of higher education and strongly believe in students as partners in the education process. The idea of free universities is therefore a useful concept, making education of degree level open to everyone.

The organisers of the session described the rise of the free universities as a response to current political and economic contexts, and built from ideas raised in the ‘tent university’ formed at St Pauls occupation. They wanted to create a debt free form of education (although you need to pay a fee to enrol) so that higher education is opened up to everyone regardless of their economic situation. Their ideal also involved taking away the ‘messiness’ (for lack of a better word to describe it) of some of the academic process in universities. I think that this is a reasonable idea, as universities have got so big that sometimes to get one idea across to even just one department is quite difficult – never mind the whole education system! Therefore, wanting to start from scratch is obviously an option, but I wonder how workable and sustainable this particular solution might be.

Then, somewhere in the description of how the idea came about 9/11 was mentioned. I honestly don’t know where this came from. Maybe unsurprisingly then, later came the mention of some of the courses they were going to be running in addition to their current social science courses: two on GM foods and chemtrails.

Chemtrails. When there was initial mention of ‘helping dispel misconceptions of genetically modified foods’ I gave them the benefit of the doubt, but then they wanted to develop a whole course around the subject of chemtrails. Then came a spiel about how these are also misconstrued because they are classed a ‘conspiracy’, but this of course is what the government call anything they want to cover up, so this free university wanted to develop a course to ‘uncover the truth’ about chemtrails. Most likely however their course would go against the Occam’s razor approach, or for that matter any form of scientific evidence and come up with a *highly likely* solution of why there are white clouds coming out the back of aeroplanes. Of course they also run courses on critical thinking. But unlike my advocacy for these kinds of courses in my last post, I can’t say I have the same degree of confidence in the course content as those offered on Coursera.

Once our digression into the conspiratorial was over, which I was completely unprepared for, we lapsed back in to discussion that was actually related to higher education, including their purpose and values as an organisation, their primary focus on knowledge acquisition etc.

Needless to say, this was not what I expected from this session. Although I like the idea in principal of free higher education, I am unsure (regardless of the course content) whether this is a workable or sustainable idea. Here are a few of my questions:

  • How useful is a degree from a free university? Their postgraduate courses (PhD’s included) are certified by a group of around 80 academics from across the country. However, they are not formally recognised by any official body. Therefore subsequently, how many people will spend three years studying for a PhD that is not officially certified apart from by less than 100 academics?
  • How will the free universities ensure the protection of students’ intellectual property without formal regulations enforced by external organisations?
  • How does the university measure its impact? How do they monitor students satisfaction with the course and compare this to other universities? How can they ensure their quality and standard of education effectively?
  • How can outsiders be convinced of the scientific rigour of the studies and the accuracy with which this research has been completed (even putting aside for now what we know about some of their specific views and courses)?

Academia as an institution is good because work done by any one of them is certified by all academics including external bodies, not just the few individuals who agree with a certain concept. This is what in principle makes it reliable (although admittedly there are problems with such things as peer review and open access for publicly funded research). We need to ensure that when thinking of making changes to the system, we approach changes with the full support of the academic community and higher education organisations.

This is happening currently with massive debates on open access and peer review. Higher education is also moving to make a better experience for students with the rise of fees in mind, and we will undoubtedly be seeing more changes in the years to come in pedagogical practice within universities. Unfortunately these changes do take time, even years to properly filter through but ultimately will provide a more reliable and quality assured system within academia and higher education.

Personally, I would advocate free courses such as Coursera or the Open University’s LearningSpace/OpenLearn courses much more than the free university. Here are ways to be educated at higher education level without paying massive sums of money that have been set up by established higher education authorities that can be quality controlled. 

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