Universities must abandon their “fortress thinking” and awaken to the challenges of operating in a fully digital world, the vice-chancellor of The Open University has said.
In a public lecture at the University of Durham, Peter Horrocks warned that too many universities still function according to parameters established in medieval times.
He argued for greater cooperation – rather than competition – between institutions, and a system which responds to higher student expectations by letting them mix and match courses or modules from different universities.
He predicted that, without change, the traditional higher education sector could be swept aside by digital competitors – in much the same way as the print media over the past ten years.
“I believe the fortress mentality is as set in the HE sector as it was in journalism. And in some ways the metaphor is even more apt,” he said:
The medieval academics built the walls of the fortress and organised life around themselves to perpetuate and replicate academic life. They have been prepared to adapt to survive, but have never needed to change the main pillars of the structure.
A sector geared for 18-year-olds is not well positioned
Universities, policy makers and politicians must move on from the “narrow minded” idea that all students are 18-year-old school-leavers. In fact the vast majority of those thinking about undertaking higher education in the next five years were already in work.
“In the future an undergraduate degree will continue to have value in the job marketplace. But job roles are already changing so quickly that top-up education opportunities will become the essential means for maintaining currency as the workplace continues to evolve.
"Our economy already requires access to skilled people; able to adapt to new knowledge and career opportunities. Technology is only going to make the situation more acute.
“A higher education sector geared for eighteen-year-old school leavers is not well positioned to cater for the needs of those young people not currently engaged in study or employment when, later in life, they see the opportunity they missed or realise that they now need the skills they once considered unnecessary.”
Technology is crumbling the fortress walls
Lifelong learning, argued Mr Horrocks, is already an economic necessity – but one to which the higher education system is unable fully to respond.
“We have, for decades, been able to rule our corners of the country safe behind campus walls, confident that high barriers to entry will maintain our hegemony.
“Those times are coming to an end. To some extent, the walls of our fortresses have already crumbled. Technology fundamentally changes access to information and knowledge.”
Universities should open up to credit transfer
It would be a mistake to assume in an information age that students should continue to be confined to the curriculum of single universities for the duration of their studies. Just as in journalism, there would be a growing expectation that people could learn from numerous different sources.
The new Office for Students, he said, could play a pivotal role in designing a system which served both the needs of students and of the economy.
"Student success is defined as a success within a single institution. A genuine definition of student success should be the achieving of appropriate study goals across a potential variety of providers.
“It should be perfectly possible for a successful first-year student at any university to transfer into any other one – even one they were not originally accepted into. Or, a student having completed the first two years of their degree ought to be able to transfer their final year into an apprenticeship programme.
“In a digital learning environment why would students not want to be able to take a module from, say, an Australian or Canadian university that has an acknowledged expertise in a given area. And such students should then have the credits that they gain seamlessly recognised by their primary institution.”
Universities could themselves shape their courses, modules and validation systems to match those of other institutions. If they didn’t, someone else would.
'Best of British' universities
“In the world of journalism in the UK, there was never a concerted effort to create a shared platform for value and quality for news content, a platform that might have provided a bulwark against US platforms,” he said.
“The UK HE sector is fortunate that it does have such a ‘best of British universities’ platform in FutureLearn, because of the foresight of The Open University. It surprises me how few HE policy makers and universities really grasp the strategic importance of the UK having, under university control, a platform of such strength.”
Nature of Higher Education must be redefined
Mr Horrocks called for universities, policy makers and the Office for Students to work together to redefine the nature of higher education through bold new initiatives and creative thinking.
"The world is changing. Its citizens require lifelong education. Our sector needs to respond. I am proud to say that The Open University, the largest university in the UK and the only four nations university, is recognising these challenges and is already modelling the solutions. I urge other universities to join us."