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The Future of Universities: Three questions for John Holmwood

Professor John Holmwood of the University of Nottingham and the Campaign for the Public University

Published in June 2013

What’s next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it’s become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here, John Holmwood is interviewed by Alex Miles.

John Holmwood

Alex Miles: You wrote a recent piece on MOOCs, saying that people should “follow the money”. I just wondered whether you thought that, despite that, MOOCs are actually a viable revenue stream for higher education institutions moving forwards?

John Holmwood: I think they’re a viable revenue stream for some institutions, but what they will do is put the revenue stream of other institutions at peril. I think there are two developments going on with MOOCs. One is of universities that think of themselves as high status – they can provide course content. The second is that there will potentially be a separate supplier of tutorial support and then a credentialing process. It’s unlikely that the institutions of a high status will deliver the tutorial support and the credentialing – they will be done separately, and I think that will be done on a for-profit basis. What that will offer is a low-cost system of education that will compete with other public institutions outside the more elite high status institutions. Essentially, this is the model I think that Pearson intend to follow, delivering suppocredential final degree. They own Edexcel, so they’re used to this model and Edexcel operates through further education colleges, so I think they will see that that will be the model for delivering higher education through further education. If we think of the competition for student applicants which we’ve had in Britain – and the instability that’s created for the Russell Group and 1994 Group universities – we haven’t yet seen the instability that will come with universities outside of these groups which will come when the quorum margin opens up to for-profit providers.

AM: The theme of the Warwick University Summit was 'Universities in 2025' - what do you think an academic in 2025 is going to be worrying about?

JH: Some of the same things that they have always been worrying about, but I think that what there will be will be a much more highly stratified and polarised system – so , concentration and selectivity is the mantra of the government facing all aspects of university activities, whether research, teaching and so on. So I think, from the point of view of The Robbins Reportambition that all universities would be associated with teaching and research – what we’ll have is a sharper separation between universities in which research takes place, and those which are teaching only, and I think the research-based institutions will be surprisingly few. The various editions of Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University started to identify the problems of the modern university – he was the great architect of public further and higher education in California. For him, the modern university is a multiversity where some of its functions would prove difficult to maintain: for example, the problem of maintaining the humanities, the problem of maintaining good quality teaching at research-intensive universities and so on.His argument becomes increasingly bleak across the various editions. He starts to talk about the “pathology” of the university and the irony is that, what he identifies as pathological, is now what is being promoted as policy.

AM: Finally, if you could get one commitment from the G8 summit of world leaders related to HE that would benefit our education, what would that be?

JH: I genuinely cannot see the G8 as the advocates of positive change because the one thing that universities need to do is deliver for local populations – that’s what a public university does. But many universities now have international campuses and then if you think that the idea of an international campus carries the image of the university of the future, setting up an international campus in Countries without democratic institutions indicates that you don’t hold the democratic functions of the university central to your definition of the university, and that’s the same position as G8 on Free Trade. So free trade in universities is actually no longer about universities serving democracy, but serving commercial interests and global elites, who are themselves divorced from local populations. For universities to serve democracy, they have to serve local populations. When the world economic forum identifies inequality as one of the major issues confronting us then I have to say that G8 should recognise that neo-liberalism is the problem and that this is so whether it is applied to economic development or to higher education. We are being taken along a path that is no longer sustainable.

For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.