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. 

Is It Worth Going to University? Part 2 of My #LFE2012

In my second post about the subsequent #lfe2012 session last weekend, I will summarise my views on the panel discussion held on whether it is still worth going to university.

The discussion was set up with the aim to discuss the effect of rising fees and ever growing number of other advanced forms of skills and knowledge training on the decisions of young people to go to university. The overall question posed was whether we should discourage more young people from attending university.

The panel consisted of three speakers: Eric Thomas (President of Universities UK), John Holmwood (University of Nottingham), Isabel Carlisle ( and chairing the session was Alison Wolf (Kings College London).

The session began with Eric Thomas noting some figures from this year’s student intake across the UK, noting a loss in 50,000 students. Losses occurred particularly in mature and part-time students, and a smaller loss in 18 year olds applying, however this could also be linked to the lower number of 18 year olds in the UK this year than last. Considering this was the first year with high fees, and at a time where everyone is being hit by the recession, this was not that much of a surprise and universities continue to look positive for the next year’s cohort figures. He ended stating that he would definitely still encourage young people to go to university, as graduates are still more employable from current employment figures.

John Holmwood agreed in principle with Thomas that he would still encourage students to go to university, but did not share Thomas’s obvious enthusiasm for the excellence of the university experience, and worried that the rise in fees will once again mean that universities cater only to the elite. His concern for this elitist approach to university meant that he stressed the importance of a university degree not just being a qualification for a job, but an experience for life, enhancing student’s personal development. He noted that there is actually declining support amongst university graduates for a university degree, although those who have not attended university yet consider a degree to be highly important. This discrepancy in opinion is concerning, raising the question of what the higher education system is leaving out of its curriculum to produce less satisfied graduates. Importantly, this issue links to the idea of the student experience, and whether universities pay enough attention to students as people and not as customers.

The final panel speaker, Isabel Carlisle, was against encouraging young people to go to university. Her argument rested upon the fact that we are now educating for a future that is very different from the past. Issues such as climate change, increasing population, development all need to be addressed and this is not done purely through academic research. We need young people who work in and with communities learning the hands on ‘know-how’ of these issues and how to communicate and interact with different communities and cultures. This experience, like the Transitions Network she runs, gives young people the ability to learn constantly through a constant feedback process, and to be using their knowledge and experiences instantly in order to practice and improve. She noted that universities don’t have enough community based programmes, and that internships are exclusionary mechanisms.

The three opinions were varied and interesting, and in many ways expected responses from the three when asked whether they would still recommend university. Eric Thomas was reserved with his comments, obviously keeping up the role of president of Universities UK without having to commit to personal opinions. Holmwood did express some interesting thoughts on the state of the higher education system currently, and I think reflects a large number of those involved in the higher education system nowadays – we do not want it to be an exclusionary system, and we want to put students at the heart of higher education, but the question is not whether we would like this, but how on earth we actually achieve it.

Isabel’s opinion was very strong, and did not mention the possibilities of other types of ‘hands-on’ work other than communities. She also did not talk about where the knowledge for the methods of community work come from in the first place – undoubtedly university research! Her argument would have had more substance if there was less focus particularly on promoting her own Transitions programme, and more on the wider benefits of non-university education, or combining university education with practical experiences allowing students to apply their knowledge and research to real life experiences.

I personally see no benefit of either practical application with no appreciation of where the knowledge comes from in the first place (which as a scientist makes me inherently uneasy at the thought of people developing methods for anything without a solid literature review of evidence for why it should be done that way) or university education with no practical application. I completely agree in principle with Isabel in the fact that new generations of learners really do need to approach their education in a different way, and the pertinent issues of today will not only be solved by scientists in their labs, but by going out and putting their work/study into action with the help of a crack team of other excellent students and professionals. The skills young people in university need are then not just those to make sure they understand the logical thought, their specific disciplines and how to do good research, but a range of other skills that allow them to effectively manage and communicate to people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Unfortunately none of the questions from the floor were exciting enough to make it into my post today, but the lack of a prominent one did. Why did no one bring up the fact that the two methods of teaching and learning could be combined? No one commented on the possibilities of integrating practical communities learning with university courses. (Shamefully, I also did not raise this point, although I did take a more prominent part in a later interesting discussion.) Yes, it may be a lot of work, but essentially Isabel is right, we do need to think carefully about how we educate now. Technologies and global issues are changing and evolving quicker than they ever have done before and we need to acknowledge that in order to continue to provide the world with people who can address this change and solve emerging problems. I believe that universities are where we will find the next generation(s) of  problem solvers, and that it is universities who need to think the hardest about how they will maintain their edge as leading institutions (and choices) for further education. This means we (universities) need to consider, amongst other things, deciding on whether we teach young people the underlying basics of their disciplines, or whether we branch out into teaching use of new technologies in practice and/or focus more on field trips and practical work (an issue I will be partially addressing through my job at UCL). It may also include putting what students want at the heart of the curriculum, involving them in their education in terms of content, method and assessment.