"If an innovative, low-cost approach to the web can be used to connect millions of ordinary people with politics and protest, then cannot the same sort of strategy help to connect millions of ordinary people with a higher education to which many have never aspired?"
23 June 2009
Good morning. Last time I was here, I spoke about what I call the new politics of movement. I said then – as Demos has been saying for a long time – that the era of top down organisation is over; that the barriers to participation are coming down, and that decision-making by cabal has given way to that of open source.
Last time, I was talking about politics. Today, I want to apply exactly these principles to higher education: why we must harness these ideas of movement and of a dynamic, vibrant civil society in the way we run our universities. Why democratic higher education goes to the heart of the kind of good society that we want to live in.
I’d like to thank Richard Reeves and Demos for inviting me back to talk to you about a subject that’s close to my heart, as the MP for an area of London that was once synonymous with deprivation and low educational achievement. I would not be here today without the higher education I have received. Now I would be failing not just in my political but in my moral duties if I did not begin the work of using every tool at our disposal to make this experience open to as many people who want to take it.
We are well aware that the the great challenges of our age are global challenges. Not just the regulation of economies and trade, tackling climate change or global disease and poverty. Communication and virtual media are allowing people to organise and create their own, shared solutions far beyond traditional organisational structures. Wherever we are, virtual media can now allow us to participate in events elsewhere in real time. Whether it’s Tamils in Parliament Square or reformers in Tehran, using Twitter and Facebook to mobilise in ways and at speeds we have never seen before – then broadcasting their efforts to the world on YouTube – a community of participants these days usually extends far beyond the people who are physically there.
So if the last century was the era of large, homogeneous organisations, this one is about the interconnection of people and projects through overlapping, interactive networks. Where the big problems of the last century were tackled by big government or big business, the big challenges of this century will require the mobilisation of millions of people to change their behaviour, shape their own environments and help one another in myriad ways.
And if the last century was also that of the ‘big university’ – in the institutional sense; in the bricks-and-mortar sense – then this morning, I want to talk about some of the ways in which these technologies can revolutionise and democratise higher education, too.
To glance only briefly at British cultural history in the last two centuries is to see that these democratic principles informed our greatest educational reformers – like the Victorian politicians and philanthropists who oversaw the creation of great public museums and libraries in towns and cities across the country – places which remain our ‘universities of the street corner’. Learning flourished in Working Men’s and Working Women’s colleges, where artisans could be inspired not just in their trades, but in arts and culture – with teachers ranging from John Stuart Mill, Rosetti and Ruskin, to EM Forster and Seamus Heaney. Higher education swelled with the rise of the trade union movement, as working men and women came together to share not just ways of working, but ideas, and were encouraged to learn for learning’s sake. Everywhere we turn – in places of worship and local councils, in technical and manufacturing institutes, in the Open University, the Arts Council and Sports England – is to see higher learning beyond the institutional bounds of our universities.
Because this debate requires us to reframe our idea of what an 'institution' is. We tend to think of institutions as being things with four walls and a plaque on the door – schools, hospitals, DBIS, the local Women's Institute – or universities. But what really matters about institutions is that they bring people together. A local SureStart centre is an institution that offers support to parents; but so is the website NetMums, which has around 250,000 people logging on everyday to give each other advice about daily parenting problems. Likewise, the OU is an institution, even though 99% of its learners would never have been to the OU, and might not even know that it has a headquarters at Milton Keynes. So we need to have a much fluid definition of what an institution is – and in HE, technology will play a key role here.
Since the end of the last war, publicly-funded higher education has grappled more or less continually with the basic problem of how to make available to the many a form of education that has historically been the preserve of the few. Of how to throw open the gates of the Academy and take what’s been confined there out into the world.
I’m speaking here not just of knowledge, skills and opportunities, but of the core values of tolerant and rational debate for which universities have always stood.
Many ways of doing this have been tried and most have met with a measure of success.
In1944, the Education Act paved the way for universal free schooling, and which opened secondary schools to girls and the working class. In the 1950s and ‘60s, we witnessed the great expansion of comprehensive schooling in (especially under Anthony Crosland as Secretary of State for education. And we built more universities – many more. Enough to allow the percentage of young people receiving a higher education to reach double figures for the first time in our history.
At the end of the 1960s, the Open University – a wonderful, progressive idea – was founded to bring distance higher education to hundreds of thousands of working men and women. I’m not going to say much about that because I’m sure it’s something Brenda Gourlay will want to stress when she speaks. But where the OU used the newly democratic medium of television to bring teaching to a mass audience, now – with the internet – we have a much more powerful tool; one which is interactive. One-to-many communication has given way to many-to-many participation.
In 1992 the number of free-standing higher education institutions rose dramatically almost overnight when the ludicrous binary divide between universities and polytechnics was finally abolished.
The extra money that’s gone into higher education since 1997 has given another third of a million people the chance to get a degree and has allowed us to move towards our ultimate ambition of sending half of all young people to university.
But here we run into a number of problems.
Like the marginal cost to the taxpayer of every extra university place – especially in key but expensive subjects like science or medicine.
Or like the fact that – as the Open University has shown – people, and especially working adults, can reap enormous career and life benefits from getting some higher education without necessarily completing a full degree.
I ought to add that one of the main challenges this entails does not relate to digital learning alone. As Higher Education at Work argued last year, more conventional provision also needs to be made available to part-time students and to adults in the workplace in order better to meet the needs of employers and working people.
That raises questions not only of how to do it, but how to pay for it. That’s a larger issue than I have time to address today, beyond noting that credit-based funding is a nettle that the Government and the sector will both one day have to grasp.
There is only a certain amount that we can achieve through the conventional higher education models. If we want to continue and accelerate the democratisation of higher education, it’s time for another revolution in the idea of a university.
It’s time to step up to the challenge of using technology to make what universities can offer available to the broad mass of people.
It’s time to accept explicitly that higher education which is worthy of the investment of taxpayers’ money – because it brings national benefit – can come in many different forms, which go far beyond traditional full degrees or diplomas.
That it can, and should, extend even into the world of informal learning. I hope universities will think seriously about that point. Higher education certainly is an engine of social and economic progress, but it’s also a bastion of the value of knowledge and of learning for its own sake. Digital technology gives us a golden opportunity to take that ancient role into the 21st century.
And the potential of the technology isn’t confined to students. It’s time to embrace more fully the potential of technology to assist the work of researchers and other academic staff by making them part of a national or even global senior common room. Just think of the implications of that for researchers in the developing world, maybe in universities without the resources to fund physical travel overseas.
The Edgeless University points the way towards the sort of revolution I’m talking about and I want to congratulate everyone involved in producing it.
Only last week, the publication of Digital Britain underlined, among other things, the growing importance of new technologies to our ability to participate fully in society. That’s why it set the goal of achieving universal access to broadband by 2012.
If an innovative, low-cost approach to the web can be used to connect millions of ordinary people with politics and protest, then cannot the same sort of strategy help to connect millions of ordinary people with a higher education to which many have never aspired?
I’m not talking just about creating online learning environments. While virtual learning is opening up wonderful possibilities for new and more flexible ways of learning, if not underpinned by proper understanding of pedagogy and provided with effective teaching support, it can also run the risk of being a solitary, sterile and ultimately dispiriting exercise. One of the great virtues of universities has always the way they make learning a multi-directional thing, involving debate and exchange between a learning community. Pippa Buchanan’s comments, quoted in the Demos report, bring that point out very forcefully.
We know from technologies like Twitter that it is possible to create online communities. And I hope the higher education sector will learn from that in designing its digital outreach activities, both between the academic community and the public and within the academic community at home and abroad. Academics and researchers have a duty to be out ‘in the community’ – leading and shaping, but also listening to the public debate. Now the opportunities to do so have never been greater.
But online communities are only one recent development some of our universities are now using. Many other technological innovations are already being used to support and enhance teaching and learning. If we think of the rapid changes over the last 10 or 15 years – starting with the creation of the worldwide web – just imagine what the next 10 or 15 years might bring.
We already have the technology and an understanding of its pedagogic implications that enables us to almost replicate the experiences of a student receiving a “traditional” university education.
But students and employers now have new demands and expectations – with students who can’t or don’t want to travel to a university or don’t want the traditional experience of our standard three-years of undergraduate study on a university campus. So we need to take full advantage of what technology can do to satisfy their requirements. We need to replicate all the advantages of the British Brand of higher education – held in high esteem internationally – in our new on-line world and provide high quality, well-supported on-line distance learning.
The Edgeless University recognises, rightly, both that this challenge is worth embracing and that it’s far from problem-free. Funding, accreditation, moderation and intellectual property issues all need to be addressed.
And the Government needs to play its part in that.
That’s why I’m pleased to be able to announce today how we plan to ensure we will remain a world leader in on-line higher education and become the first choice across the world for on-line distance higher education over the next ten to fifteen years.
Our university education and the way we now use ICT to support that teaching is already recognised as among the best in the world. But changes now come very rapidly and our universities cannot afford simply to rest on their laurels.
We are therefore setting up a high-level task force to advise us on how we should be building on our current successes and take advantage of new demands and new markets. Demands from students and businesses for more flexible approaches, tailored to meet their specific needs. And the developing demands – both in this country and internationally - for high quality distance learning, that today’s technology is allowing us to satisfy through on-line and electronic delivery, backed up by effective British university teaching.
Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library, has agreed to chair the task force. We already have agreement for high level executive representation from both private and public sector. Martin Bean, the next Vice Chancellor of the Open University and with a background at executive level in Microsoft and before that in teaching, has also agreed to join and we will be looking to extend membership further to ensure we get the very best advice.
Our strategy builds on what we have already invested that has given us a world class infrastructure and a huge and expanding range of digital resources which students can use. Only last week we heard about the 2 million pages of 19th Century newspapers the British Library is now making available to anyone.
But we need to help universities to work together more collaboratively so that British higher education can exploit these opportunities more effectively. So we will develop new plans for international marketing of online distance UK higher education. And we will continue to promote the development of e-learning across the breadth of higher education.
April saw the announcement of the successful bidders resources to help develop open educational resources and we are planning toward a second round. And we are continuing to develop the role of the Open University as a national resource, so that all universities benefiting from its specialist expertise, developed through public funding.
I am pleased to announce today a new fund to encourage universities to work together and with organisations from the private and third sectors and bid for money to develop projects to help transform the way people can get a degree.
We anticipate the Open Learning Innovation Fund will develop centres of excellence to deliver high quality on-line learning; helping groups of institutions to pursue business opportunities; develop greater expertise in on-line teaching; and promote innovative learning approaches using the whole range of on-line resources, including open resources funded as part of the e-learning programme. But taking account of the advice of the Task Force is essential, so HEFCE will develop the Fund in the light of their advice and will then consult the sector on the practical details.
I believe that the potential of communications technologies to extend the reach of our universities is one of the most exciting aspects of higher education today. The pace at which Britain is becoming a digitally literate country is increasing all the time. Universities and their contribution to this country can only benefit from that trend.
The Demos report calls on universities to “engage with the geeks”, and rightly so. But what the geeks can offer universities are the means to engage with an ever-larger and more diverse community of learners.