April 22. A few years ago, I was sent by the British Council to give some lectures to the Al Quds Open University in Palestine on new developments in distance learning. At their site in Bethlehem I was introduced to the heads of the different sections, except the vice-rector for Gaza. It was explained that because of the siege, he only ever attended meetings online. Nonetheless the Gaza branch was flourishing. Of all the higher education offerings in the territory, it was much the best suited to a life of long-term shut-down interspersed with outbreaks of violence. There was no need for a permanent physical presence. When the bombing got too bad, the university could close for a few weeks and the recommence its online courses supplemented with small-scale face-to-face tuition.
Britain is not under that kind of siege, but there is a sense that the form of learning pioneered by the Open University half a century ago is ideally suited to the present circumstances. The University has had to make emergency changes to its examination and tutorial support systems, but is not faced with anything like the disruption forced upon conventional universities. Its Open Learn site, which delivers selections from validated courses free to any user, has seen a fourfold increase in traffic. It has no residential income at risk, no overseas student fee-income to lose.
In the short-term, the whole sector has embraced on-line learning. My son-in-law, a philosophy senior lecturer at a research-led university, is currently running tutorials from his spare bedroom, emerging from time to time to quieten his boisterous children. This kind of improvisation is necessary and inevitable towards the end of an academic year which when it started last autumn can have had no expectation of such a circumstance.
The critical question is whether higher education’s enforced embrace of distance education continues once the crisis is over. Already there has been a dispute at Durham, where the UCU (the lecturers’ union) claimed the university ‘wants to slash face-to-face teaching by as much as 25%, and outsource its online learning to private providers.’ Durham’s management denies this, but there is no doubt that conventional institutions are paying much more attention to the potential of online learning to cut costs in a future when budgets are going to be under severe pressure.
The problem is that high-quality distance education cannot be done on the cheap. The Open University did not invent remote learning. Its innovation half a century ago was to create sophisticated multi-media courses supported by person-to-person tutorial support. This required technical imagination and pedagogic expertise, and could only pay its way at scale. Putting a camera in front of a lecturing academic and otherwise leaving small groups of students to their own devices guarantees a third-rate education.
For conventional universities, what may work to complete this academic year looks much more risky in the long term. The UCU is right to attack the threat to the role of its members. The Office for Students should be in pursuit of institutions which seek to embed the emergency devices as permanent practice. And in what is in the UK an open market, school-leavers are surely going to think twice about spending, or borrowing, £27,000, plus accommodation costs, for so remote a learning experience. Still more so, the overseas students whose enhanced fees are critical to many universities, including those at the forefront of the Coronavirus response, are hardly likely to travel to the UK just to look at lectures on computer screens.