Towards a free university

I have generally been highly critical of plans by successive UK governments to commodify higher education and create a free market in university degrees that will require students to pay fees of well over £6000 for their degrees.  The review of higher education chaired by Lord Browne published on 12th October thus commented that “We do not in our proposals include a cap on what institutions can charge for the costs of learning. There is no robust way of identifying the right maximum level of investment that there should be in higher education. A cap also distorts charging by institutions” (p.37).  Under these proposals, universities would be able to receive all of the money for charges of up to £6,000 and then pay a levy on the amounts that they charge above this.

So, how feasible might it be for universities in the UK not to charge students fees for the learning that they receive?  The standard reaction amongst most British vice chancellors to the possibility of increasing fees has been one of relief and welcome as they see it as the only way to counter the decline in income that they have faced in recent years, and that is about to get very much more severe if reports of the impending cut of perhaps 79% in funding for undergraduate teaching in the upcoming spending review prove to be true.  It would be a brave vice chancellor who used this as an opportunity to cut student fees, and provide students with a free education.  However, it would be a remarkably astute piece of marketing, and might just prove to be the means to save their institutions.

This, or course, depends a little on how we choose to define a university – and I see universities as something very, very different from the low quality, mass-producing, learn and regurgitate type of higher education institutions that dominate the world today.  A university should be a place of research and learning; it is where leading academics push the frontiers of knowledge forward, and in so doing enable bright students to learn something of value from them.  Universities are exciting places for those who are bright enough to benefit from the opportunities that they provide; they are dreadful for students who simply want to be taught the right answers to regurgitate in exams. The tragedy in the UK is that this distinction has been blurred, and in seeking to provide a higher education system that enables half of our young people to gain degrees, we have dumbed down the quality and created a system that we can no longer afford.

So, how might a university that provides free learning work?  The following are some tentative ideas:

  1. Such universities could focus primarily on gaining high value research funding, both from government research councils and also from external research contracts.  Whilst undertaking research, academics would also be expected to do some ‘teaching’ (for free), but at a much reduced level.
  2. New ICTs can help dramatically to reduce the amount of time academics actually spend in classes.  Filming of standard lectures, for example, which could be used for more than just one year, and the use of digital learning management systems can effectively reduce the time that academics actually need to spend teaching.
  3. Universities could change their employment contracts, only paying staff for nine or ten months a year (thereby leading to an immediate 16.7%-25% cut in salary bills), and expecting them to gain whatever extra income they wished to through external consultancy or contracts for the additional two or three months. This might actually turn out to be much more lucrative for academics in terms of salaries
  4. Once students have left halls of residence in droves (because they can no longer afford both fees and accommodation),  universities could focus on using this vacated space for the conference trade and other external sources of income generation.  This could then be used to subsidise free education to the students living locally
  5. Learning could be provided for free, but students would then be expected to pay something to take examinations if they wanted the external recognition that modern credentialism demands. Oh for the day when students could get a job without showing that they gained a 2:1 from the university of mass production, but rather by simply showing that they had learnt something from being with Dr. Wisdom!
  6. Might we even be able to move to a system whereby students paid academics on a voluntary basis – as with tips in a restaurant?
  7. Academics could write text books, make them available to students online and charge realistic prices for them, thereby gaining some of the profits traditionally made by textbook  publishers.
  8. Traditional styles of teaching could be changed dramatically.  If academics are spending most of their time doing research, perhaps students could learn by being apprentices, working together with the relevant academics and doing some of the simpler research tasks for them.

These are just a few ideas, and they are proposed here simply to show that the notion of a university where people can learn for free – something very different from free higher education for the masses – is not entirely ridiculous.  All it requires is some imagination, vision and passion.  What students pay for to go to universities is not the content – there is far too much of that freely available already, and much of it is not actually that good!  They pay for access to the minds of the researchers who work in universities.  The Free University is about ways in which we can enable bright students, who really want to learn, to have opportunities to interact freely with some of the leading academics in the world today.

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