Universities of the future

Will Hutton was a keynote speaker at CIDA’s London conference on The Arts, Creative Industries and Business Innovation last Thursday (24 June) – he gave a fairly apocalyptic view of the future supported by myriad graphs and tables which he raced through as his thoughts came faster than it took to read the slides; one big thought, though, was the need to fight to protect the knowledge base – in a knowledge economy where the west in general and the UK in particular are fighting to retain primacy, there is a deep sense of illogicality when it comes to consider how the HE budgets in particular are being slashed – as I was listening, I was thinking that innovation needs to come to universities themselves – they are not what they were; they are not what they think they are – watching my daughter do her MSc Management at Leeds University Business School twoyears ago, during which she did not touch SMEs, the Service sector or – god help us – the Creative sector (the fastest growing sector in the UK and in Europe), but only looked at manufacturing and multi national companies, I was forcibly struck by the huge chasm between HE and the real world. Thinking about this, and doing some browsing, I came across some thoughts of management guru Peter Drucker, actually written in 1997 but amazingly prescient!

Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book. Do you realise that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either content or quality, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. HIgher education is in deep crisis. Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won’t survive as a residential institution.

When you consider how the universities regard students more as sources of income generation than minds to be stretched and enriched; when you see how HE responds to cuts by cutting students’ contact time with the lecturers rather than seeking new ways of working with them; when you see that some of those lecturers are just PhD students standing in for lecturers without the slightest idea of how to engage, how to communicate, how to enthuse – and, in some cases, probably have even less interest in learning how to engage etc; when you read about how students themselves, as irate customers paying for this lack of contact time, go on strike!; when you think that most Masters and Doctorate courses are predominantly attended by foreign students since UK students have difficulty raising the cash; and those poor foreign students themselves are paying wildly inflated fees for this dismal lack of contact time, which in any other business would be cause for prosecution under the Trades Description Act!; – how on earth can you not question the value of what we get from our universities?

Oh sure, there will be examples of good practice somewhere – but even as you rush to cite it and prove me wrong, you are simply quoting the exception, not the rule………..

So yes – I’m absolutely with Will Hutton – let’s save our knowledge base – let’s reverse those crazy, unthought through, funding cuts. But let’s get our Universities to respond to this and earn the reinstatement of their funds by showing us what they are made of – let’s see the ingenuity, the cleverness, the innovation, the creativity of these institutions as they respond positively to this crisis – let’s see brave thinking, courageous actions – and, until we do, let’s not subscribe to the notion that the Knowlege Economy depends so much on HE. Let’s nurture, support and celebrate the knowledge, the ingenuity and the experience of people in businesses of all sizes, of all disciplines, who every day are having to find the time to do, to think and to create, merely to survive.