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MOOCS and the University Mission

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Today sees the official launch of FutureLearn Ltd, a private company operated by the Open University to deliver ‘free online courses’ – MOOCS – offered by its partner institutions. The latter includes 21 British universities, plus Monash and Trinity College, Dublin. The launch has been facilitated by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which also issued a report on MOOCS today.

As reported previously, the term ‘free’ appended to ‘online courses’ is something of a misnomer. FutureLearn is a private company precisely so that it can attract private venture capital and make money for shareholders from MOOCS. The content is apparently free, but the intention is to find a business model by which it can also be paid for in terms of licensing fees for its use within other degree programmes, or through accreditation.

Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the Open University refers to the creative ‘disruption’ of industries by new technologies and that higher education is no different. Similar language was used by Sir Michael Barber of Pearson Education in his account of the ‘coming avalanche’ that higher education was confronting. ‘Disruption’ is the language of neo-liberal ideology.

The word ‘free’ has previously applied to higher education – not to describe making it available for profit seeking, but to describe how it was provided at no cost to its students. The university has also been understood to have a cultural role and function for wider society. For the 1988 signatories of the Magna Charta Universitatum, that meant that “its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.

Eight of the FutureLearn partner universities in the UK are signatories to this statement. Along with their other partner institutions, they are also participants in a higher education system that is subject to government-directed marketization.

The UK government is clear in its mission for universities, both in its strategy for internationalisation and in its promotion of MOOCS. The problem, for them, is the independence of universities from economic power. As Andrew McGettigan has argued, the government sees the problem precisely as being that of a corporate form that protects their independence from economic power.

As the Government report on internationalisation of higher education stated, “It is for institutions themselves to decide their own structures. Some have found ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms… A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.”

This is repeated in the support offered to FutureLearn by Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts: “FutureLearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education. New online delivery tools will also create incredible opportunities for UK entrepreneurs to reach world markets by harnessing technology and innovation in the field of education.

But what of the FutureLearn partners? Which of the universities participating in FutureLearn will disrupt themselves? They plan not to by restricting membership only to those universities that are in the top 30 in at least 3 out of 4 UK ranking systems. However, it is clear that they see the future in terms of the division of higher education between elite education at a traditional, ‘bundled’ university and the much cheaper provision of higher education by for-profit providers and other universities forced to reduce their fees by competition. The course content of the MOOC provider will be one of the instruments by which this new division will be created.

It is also clear that this new, for-profit model is directed at lifelong learning, in a context where falling applications from mature students and part-time students shows where the new fee regime has begun to bite. Increasingly, ‘second chances’ are to be provided by for-profit providers. This is a situation recently criticised by a damning US senate report, the Harkin Report, which identified the ‘sub-prime’ education offered for sale, primarily to students from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds. 22.4 percent of all revenue was spent on marketing, advertising, recruiting and admissions staffing, 19.4 percent on profit distributions and just 17.7 percent on instruction.

The disruption of higher education is occurring not by new technology, but by the pursuit of profit. Do the Vice Chancellors of the universities that are participating in FutureLearn truly think they can continue to define themselves by the simultaneous pursuit of higher learning and commercial entrepreneurship? Before taking up his post as LSE Director, Craig Calhoun, wrote about the key lessons to be learned from the LSE-Libya scandal. These were that Universities had allowed themselves to forget that they were not commercial corporations and that they needed to remember and stay true to their academic mission.

Perhaps significantly, LSE has not partnered with FutureLearn. In “offering online courses from some of the world’s best universities for free”, have they looked at who else has not joined them? Of the British Universities ranked in the world top 20, none are partners in FutureLearn. Perhaps this is another divide in English higher education?

  1. I would be interested to know if anyone said no, and if anyone has asked since.

    Interesting to see Willett’s global race argument – given Trinity College Dublin and Monash are on board? It simply isn’t a UK thing.

    It’s part start up, part mess up. But it isn’t based on education anymore

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