This is an extended version of an opinion piece published in the Irish Examiner
Over the last decade or more the language of management has permeated more and more into higher education. For some this is the trump of doom, as they see the accompanying managerialism as being the death knell of the university. Others, myself included, take this with a grain of salt. Universities, indeed all higher education, consists of large complex organizations dealing with tens of thousands of individuals and hundreds of millions of euro. The principles of good management are pretty much universal. Whether one is the abbot of a trappist monastery, the provost of Trinity College, the CEO of a coffee chain, work needs to be organized, finances managed, and the needs and aspirations of those who hold (or perceive that they hold) a stake in the continued success of the organization need to be managed. The differences emerge primarily from the different objectives of the organizations that in turn shape the structure of how the organization works. In universities the stakeholders are the staff the students and the society. These have different time horizons over which they see their needs as to be met, and aren’t always able to differentiate the short and long term.
Without getting too managerial we can then think of higher education as an industry. It consists of lots of units, some big some small, all of whom compete and cooperate with each other as the task at hand requires. We can and should then look at this industry with cool eyes. That is not to say that a managerial or economic perspective must dominate. Higher education, universities in particular, generate both public and private returns to investment. The public good is hard to quantify, and thus the standard market pricing mechanisms are not fully suited to resource allocation. In other words, the public must, if they wish the public good to be coproduced with the private good, pay for this. The challenge for universities is not to be efficient – that is simply good management and should be automatic. It is to justify to the public who pay for the public good that the usage of the public resources are as efficient as possible. Alas, in the present state of discourse there seems a needed step is to convince the government and the public that there is such a public good produced.
Part of the change I and others see in public attitudes is the emergence of what are called MOOCs : massive online open courses. These in essence are online courses into which pretty much anyone can enroll. I myself am enrolled on one on Asrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, which is on the Coursera platform run out of Edinburgh. The distinguishing feature of the Coursera and EdX programs are that they are populated by high-profile highly respected research led faculty from leading universities. Courses are available not just in “fun” subjects such as above but in a wide variety of computer science, mathematics, biology and humanites subjects. These courses require registration, online attendance etc and run quizzes and so forth, to allow people to say, at least to their own satisfaction, that they have taken the course Also wildly popular is the Khan Academy, where a bewildering variety of courses in almost anything. And in Ireland we see the success of Hibernia, which operates a blended approach with mostly online lectures and some on the ground practical instruction in required areas
So far so meh some may say – this represents no threat, as universities control the certification process, via rigorous checks on the identity and integrity of students and their work. the emergence recently of two initiatives should cause significant concern for Irish higher education.
First, we see the emergence at the lower middle end of universities of a refined blended model. A number of US universities are experimenting with allowing students to enroll on MOOCs, to take the courses and pass examinations (under exam conditions) and to carry that credit as part of courses in the same way as a regular student. Crucially, they see the MOOC not as a substitute or an apocalyptic threat but as a marketing tool. They find that students who take a MOOC tend to be enthused to take other non-online courses. The MOOC is a marketing tool. Second, at the top end we see certification emerging – Coursera for examples allows students to achieve certification in courses using a combination of IT and other security features, while EdX allows for students to take an old fashioned examination with certification if desired. Thus the strategic moat that was certification is crumbling: a student can in theory take a self designed structured set of courses from a set of world leading universities and present evidence to employers that they have, for example , reached the MIT level in computer programming or cybernetics or the Harvard level in biology.
Where then stands the Irish third level? Employing 23,000 staff (9400 academic….) and reaching 13,000 students it’s a large industry. As of 2011 for all HEA funded institutions, university and IT, only 4000 students, 2%, were engaged in what it terms flexible learning, which includes distance and in service education. Compare this with the USA where 30% of all students take at least one course online. Ireland has a long way to go. Credit based courses where students can take their degrees in their own time at their own pace are a rarity ; most HE institutions are barely visible online; not a single Irish university has or seems to have plans to have a MOOC (although TCD is contemplating one and is hosting a major international symposium on online education in February) ; UCC is developing a major online presence in postgraduate education across a number of areas ; the HEA is understood to be supportive of moves to create a greater online presence while preserving the on campus experience. Thus some movement might reasonably be expected in the near future. While the obvious MOOC , if we want it to act as a shop window for Irish universities, would be one on Irish studies, we should not stop there. Despite the doom that is poured out that we have no university in the top 100, every single Irish university is in the top 5% of the THES rankings. Every one is world class. We have a world-class industry here. Within disciplines we have world-class researchers and teachers, in pretty much ever-single discipline. A MOOC or ten would demonstrate that, to the public and to the wider world. Every international student is an export – lets place ourselves in the world shop window.