Reforming the university: evolution or revolution? – A Response

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As a ‘disenfranchised insider’ I really enjoyed reading Tony Bates’blog post ‘Reforming the university: evolution or revolution?’. In it Dr Bates discusses change in universities from a stakeholder point of view and considers Faculty, Students, Government and the Economy. He concludes by saying:

My view is that universities do need to change quite radically, and some form of direct intervention is needed to speed up the reform of the university. In other words, we need to build on academic contributions that suggest the need for and methods of change, and move these into some kind of movement for change. The stakes are high. Those countries that move quickly and successfully to bring about the much needed changes in universities will reap enormous benefits, educationally, economically and socially.

He then goes on to ask four questions of his readers.

  1. Do universities need reform? Are they meeting the needs of the 21st century as well as can be expected, or do they need to change more quickly?
  2. If they do need to change, what models or visions can we offer? What role should technology play in these models or visions?
  3. If change is needed, what is the best way to bring about change in a timely and orderly manner? Or should we not worry about whether it is orderly?
  4. Who will join me on the ramparts with my banner?

I have commented on Dr Bates’ blog but I do think it is worth expanding on some of those comments in my own post. So here are my answers to Dr Bates’ question.

1. Do universities need reform? Are they meeting the needs of the 21st century as well as can be expected, or do they need to change more quickly?

Yes universities need reform. From a student learning point of view they continue to attempt to operate a system that worked well when higher education was for a small elite but does not work for a mass higher education model. Nor does it work particularly well for a highly connected society. We now live in an age of both mass higher education and high levels of connectedness so you have to conclude that way that universities manage student learning has to be reformed. Unfortunately faculty and senior academic managers seem to be incapable of implementing reform. Or at least, as Dr Bates points out, if they do reform then it is glacially slowly.

No I don’t think universities are meeting the needs of the 21st Century. They are not nearly flexible enough in the way they organise learning or the qualifications that they award and they remain far too focussed on the campus as the interface between faculty and students.

Yes, they need to reform more quickly. There will be new competitors to universities in the role of facilitating student learning. Old media is moving into higher education provision, smaller, more flexible vocational colleges are challenging the universities in the provision of specialist degree qualifications. The rise in prominence of the professional bodies in the facilitation of learning may change professional, vocational higher education. The professional bodies increasingly replace the degree as the primary qualification required for an individual to practice. It is a small step for them to facilitate learning themselves rather than rely on universities. This particularly true as more learning content is available openly from all sources across the internet.

The vast provision of open content brought about by the rise of the ‘read write web’ means that higher level knowledge is no longer the sole domain of universities. There might be an argument that there is a curating role for universities but they don’t even seem to be doing this at the moment. Besides, I suspect that there is a strong argument for the crowd curation of open learning material. It’s only a matter of time before a web based system arises that provides the facility for the the curation of open learning material that will enable the easy discovery of appropriate content for particular courses.

In my view universities need to be vastly more flexible in the way they facilitate learning for their students. I talk about that more in my answer to question 2. They also need to radically alter the way that conceive of the ownership and distribution of knowledge. Again I will expand on this in Question 2.

2. If they do need to change, what models or visions can we offer? What role should technology play in these models or visions?

The vision for public universities should be based on openness, transparency and flexibility. This should be underpinned by rigorous, consistent and flexible assessment. Looking at these in turn.

Openness and Transparency

In my view the very nature of a university is that it carries out research, generates knowledge and it disseminates that knowledge to a wider body of people for the benefit of the greater public good. The receivers of the knowledge are students but the term students shouldn’t be restricted just to those that join a university to receive a particular qualification. We are all students of everything we want to be and all knowledge generated by publicly funded universities should be available to everybody. We should also perhaps re-consider the term word receiver as increasingly it is about the converstaion and the students as generators of knowledge themselves.

For the first time in human history we live in an age where knowledge can be made available to vast audiences at very little cost. Universities emphasise the ‘teaching research nexus’ and yet most universities persist in locking up learning content in walled gardens within their learning management systems. Very few follow the lead of MIT and others in the Open Courseware Consortium who make learning content freely available to all. There are a number of reasons for this including the commercialisation and commoditisation of higher education over the last thirty years. Without writing a huge essay on this topic alone let me say that , in my view, the research output and courseware developed by public universities should be made freely available under appropriate Creative Commons licensing for the common good.


The undergraduate degree is still seen as the pre-eminent relationship between the student and the university. We still see it as an event in a persons life that they will go off and spend three or four years of their life. An increasing number of students come out of their higher education heavily in debt. The financial benefits of having a degree are disappearing. This was obviously going to be the case as the proportion of the population with a degree increases. If we have to live in a credentialist society then I think universities should focus more on the relationship at course level and engage students in an ongoing process of flexible study through continually undertaking single subject courses as a student’s career and interests vary over their lifetimes. Grouping the completion of courses into Bachelors or Masters programs will become, I suspect, increasingly meaningless over time. Employers will be looking for candidates that are continually updating their learning over time and students are often more interested in single subjects rather than whole program qualifications. At the moment most universities struggle to offer this level of flexibility.

Sticking with flexibility for a moment, universities need to remove themselves from the rigidity of fixed study periods. In the 21st century, as a general rule, if I can’t study a particular course at a particular time of my choosing then I really have to wonder why not. It’s not as if the learning material isn’t available. Students need and want to be able to study when and where suits them best. And that brings us on to assessment.


We already live in a world in which a small but, I suspect, increasing number of students only do the assessments for a particular course. They may not engage in any of the formal learning activities. I wrote recently about a faculty member who provided assessment advantages to students that attended their class over those that didn’t. I have no idea why they would do this but it seems to be accepted by some faculty. The question though is, should we just allow students to say to the university I have read your curriculum, I have read the learning objectives, I have studied by doing x, y, z online or offline now I wondered if you could assess me please. Oh and I don’t really want to wait until the end of the semester.

In short, I am saying that universities need to be much more flexible in the ways that they assess students. I do have a fairly low opinion of the quality of much assessment that takes place in universities so I would allow say that universities need to develop appropriate systems to help encourage rigour and consistency in assessment as well as flexibility.

The Role of Technology

Technology provides the platform upon which to provide openness, flexibility and rigorous assessment.

3. If change is needed, what is the best way to bring about change in a timely and orderly manner? Or should we not worry about whether it is orderly?

In my opinion, the best way of bringing about change is for strong academic leadership that will emphasise openness and the role of the university as a generator and disseminator of knowledge, not as a degree factories. Specifically, some things  I would do include the following:

  1. Set a timeline for a move to a transparent, open learning organisation.
  2. For all new academic staff, it would be a requirement for their course material to be made openly available. This would would be explicit in the employment contract.
  3. For existing faculty I would set a time period for the transition of their courses from closed format to open. This might tie in with the review period for the course and program.
  4. Extended support structures are required to help staff transition their content and to develop new delivery techniques based on open content.
  5. Promotion criteria should be extended to include the development of open content and engagement in open social learning. These things are measurable and universities like to measure things when it comes to promotion.
  6. Develop rigorous IT systems and policies and procedures for assessing learning and matching the learning being assessed against a curriculum developed by the university. Learning will increasingly happen all over the place. Assessment happens in the organisation accrediting the qualification. If universities don’t do it properly then, in some cases, others such as professional bodies will step in and do it instead.
  7. Provide much greater flexibility in the timing of courses and assessments. What value is there in a study period like a semester? Why can’t I be assessed on my learning at a time of my choice?

As for whether we need worry about orderliness, I’m really not sure. I suspect it doesn’t matter. some universities will be winners and some will be losers. A lot will depend on the the nature of the organisation. I suspect smaller, more agile and more specialised institutions will do better than larger, complex ones. Whatever happens, I think there will be plenty of choice for students.

4. Who will join me on the ramparts with my banner?

I will, but I am a disenfranchised insider so my voice will be but a squeak.

3 Comments On “Reforming the university: evolution or revolution? – A Response”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Reforming the university: evolution or revolution? – A Response | Mark Smithers --

  2. Great response to my original post, Mark. Given my original history at the UK Open University, I really like your idea of opening up the conventional university.

    One issue you didn’t address (except under assessment) was quality. I suspect the defense of the conventionalists will be that reforming the university in the way we would like will reduce quality. I of course will disagree, but are there safeguards that could be offered?


    • Hi Tony,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I’ve been giving it quite a bit of thought over the last few days. I think that the issue of quality is problematic at the moment for many institutions and is likely to remain so into the future without a greater commitment from academics to allowing a wider consultative processes (including external examiners) as courses are developed and operated.

      For me the key elements in quality come about through setting a very clear and appropriate curriculum for a course and associated learning objectives. The curriculum should reflect (at least to some extent) research carried out at the institution. It should be appropriate for the level of learning expected e.g. sub-degree, undergraduate, postgraduate. It should be achievable within an appropriate period of study for someone commencing the the course with no prior learning in that subject. This would have to be based on the amount of time we would expect an average student to study in order to understand the subject matter to a standard that the university thinks is appropriate. Finally, the learning objectives should be easily assessable on a consistent and rigorous way.

      All of these items are things that are notionally considered at the moment. I say notionally because the standard varies enormously and still my experience of the most rigorous quality assurance processes was at the Polytechnic of Wales/University of Glamorgan 20 years ago.

      In a changing world where flexibility will be paramount I think we will need to decouple the assessment of quality from strictly defined patterns of delivery to the linkage between curriculum, learning objectives and assessment. This is probably why I emphasised my focus on assessment in this post.




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