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The vanishing university

From Oxford to Edinburgh, Bristol to Liverpool, the story is the same: online interaction is here to stay

Among the institutions hit for six by COVID were universities. This was unsurprising. Residential institutions with thousands of members, built on frequent gatherings in confined spaces, could hardly coexist with a regime where working from home was the norm and personal interaction all but illegal. The result was foreseeable: the establishment of a kind of virtual intellectual pseudo-community, with lectures and tutorials delivered electronically and exasperated students either stuck at home, or if really unlucky cooped up in poky university halls watched over by security guards.

With nearly all restrictions on interaction now gone, you might have thought all these arrangements would vanish like the morning dew and that universities would roar back into action. But here is the real surprise. A few departments, it is true, have gone back to normal (my own included); so also with a few universities like Cambridge, which has creditably said that it will teach online only if there a strong reason not to do it in person. But these are the exceptions. Overall the story is of overwhelming caution, hesitancy and on occasion a palpable disinclination to return to the old ways. From Oxford to Edinburgh, Bristol to Liverpool, the story is the same: some face-to-face teaching, but at least for the moment online interaction is here to stay.

All this should give us pause for thought. Why this enthusiasm for keeping going with what started out as makeshift temporary arrangements? A number of factors seem to have been in play.

Some were predictable. A few people, egged on by unions anxious to show their muscle, have expressed genuine concern for health and safety. On occasion cynical economics may have come into it: on 16 August, for example, Guido Fawkes reported without contradiction that at least one Russell Group university had moved all large lectures online and simultaneously announced publicly that it remained quite happy to rent out its now empty halls for corporate events.

Students are now encouraged to think of themselves as consumers

Equally predictable were pressures from some groups within the institutions. Although many academics relish constant contact with students as a part of university life, a good number do not, seeing the need to interact and lecture in person as an imposition that takes them away from real work. For them, the chance to avoid fixed office hours and student contact clearly worked very well (and doubtless made fitting in the school run much easier). Equally, timetabling administrators tasked with juggling academics’ time, room space and students’ commitments would not be human if they did not find it easier where teaching was delivered by computer, with students tuning in at their own convenience and the IT department stepping in if anything went seriously wrong.

But there’s more to it than this. In the last twenty years or so the atmosphere in universities themselves has changed subtly, to the point where, perhaps surprisingly, abandoning in-person contact and doing everything clinically online is no big deal.

Until recently the approach to university teaching was surprisingly informal, albeit oddly effective. College was a bit like membership of a club. In exchange for paying your dues (or more likely having them paid by parents or the state), you got a buzzing social life and the chance to develop your understanding of a subject you were interested in through lectures, tutorials and regular contact with enthusiasts. Syllabuses were fairly open-ended (rumour has it that the Cambridge chemistry syllabus once read “Candidates are expected to show a knowledge of (a) organic chemistry, (b) inorganic chemistry and (c) physical chemistry”). Examinations were also fairly impressionistic, with a great deal of trust placed in the judgment and competence of acknowledged experts. Students knew what was expected of them because of close contact with faculty. In short the system, albeit a bit belt-and-braces, worked.

By the onset of COVID, however, the system had morphed into one of mind-numbing addiction to bureaucratic detail. Students did not absorb knowledge spontaneously but were taught to expect the subject-matter of each lecture to be listed in advance. Every department had to outline precisely what would be examined (not to mention what “transferable skills” students were expected to have amassed). Where students were set coursework, they had the right to detailed comments not only on what points they should cover, but feedback after the event on what would have been a correct answer.

The reasons for this change were complex, but two factors stand out. One was an obsession with social justice and equity, and a corresponding mistrust of the exercise of any form of free-ranging individual judgment. The ideas of open-ended learning, and particularly open-ended assessment based on the exercise of judgment by those of great experience in a subject, became not marks of civilisation and sophistication, but toxic precursors of subjectivity, discrimination and the perpetuation of existing intellectual power structures. The cure, particularly welcome to administrators with forms to complete, appraisals to undergo and possibly litigation to resist, was to demand certainty, even spread-sheet simplicity, both in deciding what students had to know and in examining them to ensure that they know it. True, this might result in higher understanding yielded to mathematically measurable knowledge, and mature judgment to objectively observable technique. So be it, if universities could point to robust processes ensuring no-one could claim that class, culture or upbringing had anything to do with their results.

The other was a change in the view of a university, from a club you joined with a hope of intellectual self-improvement to a purveyor of knowledge as a useful commodity. Not only do universities take this view, but so do students: they are now encouraged to think of themselves as consumers, buying education, and perhaps the student social life that goes with it, by way of investment with a view to making a return.

These factors are bad enough for all sorts of reasons: but they share one thing in common. Once you see education as a commodity, paid for and delivered according to strict bureaucratic rules aimed at promoting equity, human interaction becomes fairly secondary. Replace the absorption of knowledge and judgment with instructions to be delivered on set topics at pre-determined times, with increasingly pre-determined answers, and suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter whether you deliver your services by word of mouth or by computer, or whether professor or students are in Bristol or Bromsgrove, Edinburgh or Estonia.

Universities are ultimately people businesses

Does all this matter? At least some commentators have said it doesn’t. Simon Jenkins, for example, wrote a pungent Guardian piece in July laying into the old-fashioned residential university. While accepting the virtue of some face-to-face tutorials, where students could be challenged and exposed to new ideas, he brusquely dismissed in-person lectures as “rubbish education” redolent of “academic showbusiness”. As means of imparting information and ideas, they were functionally equivalent to an article or a book; the sooner universities accepted this and delivered them remotely as a matter of course so that students could listen at a time convenient to them, the better.

We should nevertheless be very careful before we embrace the idea that universities should be more like the Open University, distributing useful information remotely and only exceptionally involving in-person discussion. The idea that you can get all the virtue of a university education from exchanging views and ideas in a more-or-less formal tutorial setting, even if other functions are automated or take place remotely, is very implausible.

Universities are ultimately people businesses. Their ideal chemistry is a widespread fizzing reaction triggered by regular interaction between two groups: those with fascinated knowledge of a subject and a constant desire to extend it, and those interested in deepening their own understanding of it. Informal conversations with a good lecturer after a session or later in the corridor, and conversations about matters not necessarily on the syllabus, are as important as any intellectual gymnastics in a tutorial context. Abandon these and you’re a long way towards turning a university education into a bland exercise in absorbing accepted ideas and proving at the year’s end that one has done so.

Nor, in the long term, is it likely to benefit our universities. Politicians and others with constituencies to please, regularly laud UK higher education as world-class. Hitherto they have had a point; students from home and abroad have indeed flocked to take part in it in surprising numbers. But it’s easy to forget that what has attracted students is precisely what is now at risk: the prevalence of personal teaching and informal contact, and the willingness of professors to interact informally and socially with their students on matters both within and outside the curriculum. Tellingly, in those institutions which have gone back to normal after COVID, the return of these practices has been ecstatically welcomed.

It’s all very well for our universities to make the best of what they see as a bad job and say they must move with the times. But they should remember two things. One is that their students are unhappy. They see themselves as short-changed; having signed up for a degree, they rather resent being presented with what has been described as the most expensive streaming service in the world. The other is that it’s a fiercely competitive world out there. Put bluntly, any university British, Dutch, Australian or even Chinese can deliver courses in English over a video link or zoom connection. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the students who have previously flocked here will continue if they can get a pretty similar product elsewhere, perhaps cheaper and dare we say it possibly better than we can manage.

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