Universities in a changing World 3: The democratisation of learning


October 15th, 2013

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What’s so great about going to university? Perhaps never before has this question been asked as much as it is today. Driven by world events – mostly economic – people in Britain and elsewhere are questioning the value of a university education. Nowhere is this more so than in the criticism of the more esoteric subjects much abused by the media – media studies and its offshoots – a certain irony there. And of course, if we look closely at our universities their origins betray a leaning towards certain disciplines that are still class related – PPE at Oxford or Cambridge is an example perhaps. In the other direction, disciplines like Marketing or Business are much more widely distributed, and may even be seen disdainfully by their more venerable cousins.

So what you might ask?  The relevance that emerges here seems to be the difficulty that ensues when universities try to take account of that most modern of phenomena, market forces. Should we continue that course in Classics despite falling demand? Should we invest more in Design to meet increasing interest? This dilemma is a classic polarity – choosing between popular interest and societal value is always going to be difficult. The academic who has nurtured a life-time interest in an esoteric area of research can lose out in the race to match market expectations, especially in the face of a political clamour to make universities more vocationally relevant.

Being market led demands agility. Yet university education is a long game. As society demands more for less, can our universities meet the challenge of offering degrees to so many, whilst still sustaining the academic research effort? Is the old model of gathering around professors still relevant for the modern undergraduate, who gains learning from a wide range of media?

Embedded in this latter question is another. With the increasing democratisation of learning ‘Knowledge’ is coming from many more sources. Universities no longer have such a clear grip on quality of learning or on ‘channels to learner’. We might argue that there is now over-supply and competition may drive down people’s willingness to pay. At the same time, quality my achieve heightened importance and become a ‘luxury’ item (fees are under pressure to rise already).

So what now? How effectively are universities looking at future scenarios to anticipate their emerging future? To take a simple example, in the UK the training of doctors and nurses is still largely built around large teaching hospitals, seen as centres of excellence. With the commercialisation and commoditisation of health services are there other ways in which people need to be trained? After all, the medical care itself is just one intervention within the patient system – witness the growth of care paths as a means to codify such care.  How effectively do practitioners recognise that complexity may not easily be managed by deterministic models or evidence? There may be a place for intuition – or experienced guess work.

What is your university’s agenda for change? How fundamental is the thinking? What are the discussables and undiscussables?

Photo of David Cleeton-Watkins, Senior ConsultantDavid will be leading a webinar which explores and discusses universities in a changing world.  Visit the webinar page to find out more and to reserve your place