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David Willetts and other leaders discuss the future of higher education

28 February 2013

Yesterday a selection of HE’s great and good converged at the Guardian Higher Education Summit to discuss the future of our sector.

David Willetts makes a keynotes speech at the Guardian Higher Education Summit 2013

Chairing proceedings was Sue Littlemore, a freelance education journalist and former BBC correspondent. Keynotes were delivered by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, and Steven Schwartz, Former Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie, Brunel and Murdoch Universities.

Below is a summary of what they, and some of the other speakers, had to say:

David Willets, Minister for Universities and Science, argued that:

· The value of a university education is both public and private: graduates can expect to achieve higher salaries and have a greater chance of finding employment than those who haven’t been to university but there are also enormous public benefits (graduates tend to occupy the professions, play a “civilising” role in society and are more likely to vote). Therefore, universities should be financed by both private and public funds.

· University applications from the lowest income group are at a record high. This shows that the message that you don’t have to pay your university fees up-front is getting through.

· A challenge for government and universities is attracting more mature students.

· It’s not true to say that arts and humanities courses have less money now. Despite cuts, they now have greater funding, regardless of where it comes from.

· A key objective of his recent trip to India with Prime Minister David Cameron was to convey the message that there is no cap on the number of overseas students the UK will accept. Coverage in the Indian media implied that we are hostile to Indian students; Willetts was keen to emphasise that that’s not the case.

· We have a historic opportunity to meet the needs of emerging economies who want their people to receive a world-class education. India wants 40 million extra higher education students, Indonesia wants an extra quarter-of-a-million of its population to be university students each year. Similar ambitions exist all over the world and countries look to Britain as an example of excellent higher education provision – they want to send students here and welcome British universities to open campuses in their countries.

· Teaching in the UK is good but the NSS shows that we need to improve feedback.

· When asked about what improves prospects of promotion, academics answer first research, then shouldering additional administrative responsibilities; teaching only comes in third. This is inevitable given the current funding mechanisms. The KIS and other initiatives represent an effort to raise the profile of teaching.

· “Online learning is a game changer and we must take every opportunity to invest in it; it’s a key means of expanding internationally and I want to see successful universities operating in country after country. I’m optimistic about British higher education rising to the international challenge.”

Steven Schwartz, Former Vice-Chancellor, Macquarie University, Brunel University and Murdoch University, argued that:

· Universities look the same today as they did 50 years ago. Ok, they shouldn’t chase every passing fad and the UK is already very successful anyway, but there is still a need for change.

· When Sebastian Thrun put his Stanford course online, a huge number of people enrolled – in fact the course had more students from Latvia than at Stanford itself, although only about 10% stuck it out to the end. When it came to assessment, Thrun decided to give his online students the same test that the Stanford students took. A greater proportion of the online students scored 100% than those studying at Stanford. Bearing in mind that only three out of 100 applicants get a place at Stanford, that told him something about the potential of the internet for expanding the reach of top-class education.

· Thrun resigned and set up a company to offer MOOCs; a few months later MIT partnered with other universities with the goal of enrolling a billion students and just weeks later Coursera announced it wanted to do the same but for profit – it now has two million students enrolled.

What the students said

“One of my teachers tried using a textwall in a lecture and it completely failed as students kept texting in jokes and comments about other people in the room. The lecture finished an hour early.”

Atlanta Plowden, first-year student, University of Liverpool

“When choosing a university, the place itself is the most important factor of all. When it comes to teaching, interaction is essential; also, the teacher being prepared and punctual is more important than you might think.”

Alix Pressley, sixth-form student

“When I was at university, the greatest academics were often the worst teachers. Just because someone isn’t a famous researcher doesn’t mean they’ll be a bad teacher.”

Jon Gleek, Welfare Officer, University of Sheffield Students’ Union

· Before the creation of MOOCs, these online students would never have believed they could study at the likes of Stanford, Harvard or MIT. The MOOC represents a complete democratisation of education.

· Fraud is a potential problem – how do you know that the person taking the test is the person you’re giving the certificate to? Companies are beginning to address the problem with test centres; Coursera is experimenting with cameras and fingerprinting; one entrepreneur has set up real-life meet-ups for MOOC students. Steven has done a MOOC himself and really liked the fact that, if there was something that he wanted to discuss, he could talk to people all over the world in the middle of the night.

· Returning to the original point about change, if we want universities to remain the same in the sense of what they’re good at, then they also have to change and move with the times – and that means embracing online learning.

Widening participation

Les Ebdon, Director, Office for Fair Access (OFFA) argued that:

· The sector has made substantial progress in widening participation (WP) since the mid-2000s. The 2006 changes did not deter people from going to university and the indication for 2012 is that there’s been a slight improvement.

· Universities are allowed to set their own WP targets but OFFA does want people to be ambitious.

· The most advantaged 20% of young people are seven times more likely to be in the most selective institutions than disadvantaged people. In the least selective institutions all backgrounds are equally represented.

· It’s important to recognise that disadvantaged students may not have the same educational background or financial stability as other students so may need additional support once they actually get to university.

· Effective outreach work is essential: we must provide accurate information on finance and subjects and must reach students early, ideally at primary school age, before key decisions are made.

· Collaboration between institutions is very important, both in their WP activities and in their evaluation of them. But collaboration should extend to a national strategy incorporating Hefce, OFFA, schools, universities, parents and teachers – the government is keen to encourage this.

· In the words of David Willetts, we want true meritocracy rather than social engineering.

Online learning

Jeff Haywood, Vice-Principal, University of Edinburgh, argued that:

· Online courses shouldn’t be any less good, they should just be different – online learning and on-campus learning can both be good or terrible (Edinburgh offers six MOOCS and so far 300,000 students have signed up).

· We’ve still got a lot to learn about pedagogy online – but it can remove many of the barriers to access, especially for people in other, less developed countries.

Rajay Naik, Director of Government and External Affairs, The Open University, argued that:

· People are still the key thing underlying technology – both the providers and the students.

· At present it’s an immature, disruptive market. We don’t know how things will look in two years’ time, let alone further down the line.

Michael Stevenson, Vice-President of Global Education, Cisco Systems, argued that:

· MOOCS cause greater change than general online learning due to the sheer scale of people who can access them. There’s no viable business model yet though. 

Useful links

By Ele Cooper

Page last modified on 28 feb 13 15:29


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