The end of the UK university?

With the rise of the internet, I’ve been wondering why it is that universities each present basically the same lectures to the same course all over the world, when the whole system could be so dramatically simplified. But then again, why didn’t I as a student just read the text books?It follows, that lectures and perhaps university life in general, provides something more than that which a dry text book or even an online lecture can provide. Having recently done another university course, two things spring to mind:

  • Motivation
  • Socialisation

Like most people, I have books I’m always intending to read. Like most people I don’t. Why? There’s no motivation. A good lecturer not only delivers the information that is core to their subject, but they also motivate their students to learn. This is as much a social skill as e.g. “scientific” if the course were science. Obviously, part of that motivation is admiration of the person, a one-to-one relationship (or perceived one) between lecturer and student and indeed, a social “obligation”, which the lecturer places on the students to listen, learn, and complete their course work.

Socialisation is also important. A relative was completing the course through the University of the Highlands and Islands. They missed the pre-course get together on the mainland. Whether cause or effect, they failed to make friends and failed to complete the course. So, the social aspects of university are important. Through the course, people make friends, and that in itself creates an obligation to the course. But for men, perhaps another huge motivational factor is competition. No male likes to be last, and that in itself can motivate many men to do the most stupid things … but when channelled toward completing a course, it will motivate.

The Challenge of the Internet

So, in light of this, I would now phrase the initial question rather differently. Instead of “why can’t the same course be delivered by new technology by one world-wide provider” which is the essence of the first question, I would now ask: “can the internet now provide the same level of motivation and socialisation sufficient to make it viable for students to complete course material provided by a few remote educational content providers?”

Well, looking at my kids, sitting at their computers – worrying that they aren’t socialising and then learning that they are constantly chatting to their friends over the internet, I’m beginning to realise that the internet actually makes it far easier to socialise than in was in my day. For example, when young living in a street miles from my school, I barely saw any school friends unless I made the effort to go out to communal gatherings. Instead my kids “meet” them almost every night on the internet. So, the internet is now not so much a barrier to socialisation, but something that enhances the social life of most people.

So, what about motivation? Seeing my kids playing online games and finding it next to impossible to persuade them to do “traditional” fun things like play board games (or should I say bored games). Modern 3D character games are far more interesting and motivational (in terms of completing them), than anything I had as a kid. We even recently gave away numerous Airfix models we had mistakenly bought the kids for birthdays. As children we all dreamt of getting an Airfix model – today the computer is just so much more interesting and kids just don’t have those hours of boredom to fill that used to be filled by Airfix models and “bored” games.

So what is stopping the revolution?

I don’t think anything is stopping the revolution except that the children who have been brought up in this internet age have not yet got to positions of authority where they can start to get rid of the old style teaching and replace it with the new.

The path of the revolution

It will start where the motivation to change is highest and that is with foreign students who cannot afford the huge costs of travel or the cost of expensive universities, but who are hugely motivated by the benefits of education to learn – despite the problems of doing so on the internet. At first rejected, denigrated and ignored by the traditional universities, the rapid rise of online content providers will do to them what the supermarkets did to the high street. The new “supermarket” universities will rapidly come to dominate the market leaving the beleaguered high-street universities trying to claim that their years of experience, individual service and difficult access (in town centres!) are worth their hugely inflated costs.

Instead of the traditional university life, the new universities will be dominated by online social groups complemented by smaller regional social centres. So e.g. using the highlands and islands model, students may well attend a centre on a remote island, where they will socialise with students – not from their subject, but from a vast disparate range of subjects, and even vastly different universities.

Barriers to entry & the rise of the “ebay” university!

If today, one wanted to set up a new university – for argument’s sake let’s suppose one dedicated to single mums, with creches at every lecture – the cost of doing so would be far far more than individuals or even large institutions could contemplate. One would need to hire lecturers, build lecture halls, administration blocks. All this would need a location like a city where there is already available accommodation – or it would have to be purpose made. It must be similar to a hospital which at around £100million, is out of the reach of almost every individual on the planet. Only if a government can be persuaded that a “single-mum university” were a good idea, could such an institution be created.

But now let us suppose, that the content could be provided on line, that there was software to support that online delivery, socialisation and motivation. Now, the cost of providing a course is little more than the software and the server and almost any person with the skills to present and deliver a course, could in effect set up their own university. Indeed, one need not even be a traditional academic to start delivering online courses.

So, not only will the internet reduce and undermine the traditional “high-street” university concept, it will also make it possible to deliver course content in an “ebay” style, where there is effectively no University at all. Where courses a bought not as part of a complete “degree” but more piecemeal as and when needed.

But what about standards?

… have you ever bought from ebay … did you ever think “I will not buy this because it comes from ebay?” Likewise, will an employer looking at a CV really care where the person obtained their degree so long as there is some type of quality assurance to that standard?

The internet has largely overcome the problem of ensuring standards by a system of review of products. This is not only as effective as traditional “high-street” shops whose reputation allowed them to charge higher prices – it is arguably better than traditional “high-street” shops, as the feedback reflects the actual product, not in some general sense, but even week to week as new batches arrive. Likewise an internet appraisal system could assess – not just the university, but almost lecturer by lecturer! And indeed, there are already just such schemes (rate your lecturer)

But why have we ever thought of a degree as being from “a university”. No university is a single standard of education. It is not so much one education provider, but a whole mishmash of individual coarse providers – some good, some not so good. Some politically biased, some not. There is no fundamental reason why students could not shop around, not by university – but almost lecture by lecture, but as one might now buy a textbook!

But it couldn’t possibly happen!

This I’m afraid will be the response of most academics. Like every other sector before them, that faced the onslaught of automation, they see themselves as being fundamentally different and that their “craft skills” could not possibly be replaced by the dumb and “cheap” automation they see threatening them.

And like every other group – they will be wrong.

And like every other group – from luddites, to modern unions, they continue to deny the change could happen until they find themselves fighting tooth and nail to retain their jobs in the overmanned old order of the “high-street” education retailer

Now to Conclusions

Firstly, I’m now convinced it will happen, not as fast as it might appear without considering the social and motivational factors of university life, but now that the internet has largely overcome the bulk of this barrier, it is sure to happen.

Second, the more “up-market” the university, the less they will believe it could happen. “3000 years this university has withstood the onslaught of the rest of the world – no cheap internet course can replace that!” It always has it always will, and nothing they do can stop it – what they can stop – is the UK being any kind of player in the new internet educational age.

As such, the new sector is likely to be dominated by – I suppose in UK terms “the old polytechnics”, but even that is probably optimistic. Initially seen as a wholesale dumbing down of education by the old high-street universities, they will shun, reject and probably attack the new sector. However – there is no reason whatsoever that any of these new universities will be in the UK, indeed whilst the US has shown more innovation than the UK, it need not even be in the US. We could e.g. see a whole new set of universities appearing in China, India. The very fact, that seems so incredible, is probably why it will happen without really being noticed – until they are already well ahead and we are too far behind to do much.

Starting with poorer students from over-seas, these new “internet universities” will rapidly expand, at first only affecting those with heavy oversees intake, but steadily cutting into university intake – mainly in countries without state funding. So, like so much else, the UK will think this is a phenomenon that does not affect “us” (as in UK academics).

The final phase of the revolution, will be when the UK finally realises that these internet universities are not only a lot cheaper than traditional delivery, but also as good – and in many cases better!!! than traditional universities.

Then the politicians will start asking why we are spending so much on traditional universities that are not delivering the same quality students. Then they will demand changes. Then they will force through changes and then after many years kicking and screaming and attacking any who dare to suggest they will change – the change will begin.

Then we will have the desperate attempt to catch up with the rest of the world, the rapid closure of many institutions, the same kind of union reaction of hostile action (but much more intellectually done) as many who had expected a life tenure in a safe institution find themselves kicked out with no job and little hope of one.


Once the technological threshold enabling delivery has been crossed, the technology will be implemented fairly rapidly – particularly where cost drives the process. A few universities reliant on oversees students will pretty soon face a crisis, but then we will enter the “false war” phase, where the world outside the UK rapidly evolves leaving the UK as far behind in education as it was in manufacturing.

I think it could all happen pretty quickly. Given the way children are so ready to accept using the internet, it could happen almost as quickly as a new course can be created – which is probably just a year. Usually things take time to bed down, but given the cost advantage and the huge commercial opportunity, I give it ten years, at most twenty.

Let’s be optimistic and guess that half the teaching staff lose their jobs, quarter go into the new content delivery and perhaps a rump quarter of staff remain in the “high-street” universities. If that occurs over 20years, that could just be done entirely through natural wastage. But if sooner, that would mean active job cuts. It certainly means that very few of those entering universities today will have a pleasant career for the next few decades.

But what about research?

The traditional model of a part-time lecturer doing teaching now seems rather outdated. If teaching largely becomes “industrialised” with a few content providers world-wide dominating the education field, that rather leaves researchers without a role in education!

So, let’s make the model more complex – let’s suggest that out of a 9 term course, that 66% is delivered by “one-size fits all – the only colour is black” internet delivery, leaving perhaps 33% to be delivered by “made to measure – latest developments straight from the research lab” lecturers.

This “specialist” research will be least cost effective to “industrialise”. So it will likely continue to be delivered by researchers – perhaps recorded to be used for several years before it needs updating so that far less time is spent teaching, but relatively, the effect could be much smaller on final years teaching.

But what about final schooling?

If the internet most easily fits the “standard” subjects, it follows that it will also hit the top end of schooling. Post 16 school teaching – where students are more motivated –  could soon become much more of a part-time tuition session than full-time teaching. Again, we could see massive job cuts in post-16 education, and again, as there is next to no incentive for UK education providers to start developing such kind of content, this new sector will largely develop abroad.

Final Conclusion

There are fundamental reasons why the state-funded UK education system will ignore this revolution until it has already occurred and then do far too little far too late at a time it has already largely matured abroad.

This will mean we will be behind and like UK manufacturing, many jobs will go abroad leading to a lengthy period of job losses particularly for teaching staff for post-16 and new-entry university students. It will also mean very few promotion prospects, demoralisation, union action – basically the kind of atmosphere that Thatcher (helped by Blair) created in UK industry for around 30 years.

So – not a good sector for my children!

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14 Responses to The end of the UK university?

  1. stewgreen says:

    Abolish universities, and learn lifelong in the job said Cambridge/Harvard professor Edward de Bono in his 1980s book.
    – So many good points .. Too much is mis-education in dogma rather than practical reality.

  2. stewgreen says:

    He says they give education in a single dose for life, instead of life long learning.
    they are situated outside real life ie not in industry and even on the edge of towns, elitist etc .. Education is focused too much on buildings rather than aquiring skill.
    True for me, 3 years of 35 hours/week lectures, 35 weeks/year I learnt nothing compared to my industrial experience time.
    – Have you met recent, 21C graduates, even scientists and thought “jeez they know nothing” ?

    • It’s all very sympomatic of the kind of things that could have been said about UK industry after WWII. Heavily politicised, entrenched attitudes, a hostile attitude to those outside aka “the customer”.

      … to be honest, my main motivation for this was to try to work out how this might effect my own kids. Hopefully, they’ll just scrape through before the massive demotivation and industrial dispute phase starts.

      And so long as none of them are daft enough to go into either post16 education or university teaching, I think my family will largely be bystanders. (I HOPE – but it could be very close with my youngest)

    • And stew … who do government normally rely on to tell them about such impending revolutions … and who are going to be the very last group in the world to admit that such a revolution is under way.

      … yes the academics.

  3. neilfutureboy says:

    Indeed. A number of people are doing such online courses – best known being the Khan Academy.

    I believe they are giving results at least comparable to many conventional institutions. Since credentialism is fostered by the state they may well not be financially useful for government and government regulated jobs yet, but this flood cannot be permanently held back by governmental Canutes.

    • There’s also a climate course at Oxford University:

      Clearly intended to preach the gospel, it doesn’t even bother to go into simple atmospheric physics like the composition or layering of the atmosphere. So, much like marxist feminist studies.

      But you can already see from the way that course is “free” (for those wishing indoctrination) that the cost of such online courses is orders of magnitudes lower than traditional teaching.

      It’ll be like watching a tsunami come in – at first it will be a few odd courses – which the academics will expect to be the end – but it will continue and then there will be more, and more and more — and it just won’t stop — and then they’ll all suddenly realise that it isn’t going to stop.

      Neil — you know the common expression we heard in industry in around 1990 was “they couldn’t possibly automate my job”. Usually said by someone desperately trying to convince themselves that their job couldn’t be automated and so they must be safe.

  4. Pingback: The end of the UK university? – II | ScottishSceptic

  5. stewgreen says:

    There is a similar brainwash course at Exeter U online. A few skeptics who hangout at Unthreaded on BishopHill are on that course, seems it is pitiful.

  6. When University fees were increased to £9k a year, the Open University also increased its fees to match. This suggests that at least part of the agenda of increasing the fees was exclusion of everyone not in the rich category, as the cheap alternative, with much lower overheads and offering less of the University experience was blocked. I agree with the view that these days many aspects of University can be replaced by the net. But it looks to me that there is a retrograde political agenda to restore higher education to the reserve of the elite. If people try to use this alternative (as I am doing now. A few years ago having retired I would have gone back to University but cannot afford £9k a year. I would have then opted for OU but it now costs the same) I expect there will be some clever legal gerrymandering to take this option away.

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