Goodbye, alma mater?

Real campuses and lecture halls could be ousted by the cyberspaces of the virtual university
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A university in cyberspace - without walls, coffee bars or seminar rooms - may sound unreal to people who have studied for their degrees in real places in real time. But the virtual university is already upon us. British Aerospace, the country's largest manufacturing exporter, is about to launch one for its 44,000 employees.

Its move, which is still under wraps, shows how quickly higher education is changing in the UK. Once reserved for a few, and bound by the exigencies of time, place and tradition, the system has now burst wide open. The Open University showed the way with its distance learning techniques. Now companies are jumping on to the bandwagon in an attempt to keep their aspiring staff fulfilled and able to compete in the global market-place.

"We have to do this because the aerospace industry is probably the most competitive in the world in terms of technology," says Nick Bealey, BAe's education liaison manager. "We have to have the best engineers globally. We can't afford simply to be competing with GEC."

The intention is for the company to buy in the best courses it can, and otherwise to lay on its own. Modes of learning will be flexible, with an emphasis on computer technology. The aim is to ensure that all employees are able to acquire further and higher education. "We want them to stay at work as much as possible, but we want them to be gaining extra quality," says Mr Bealey.

Does this kind of development mean the end of the university as we know it? Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts and one of the brains behind BAe's virtual university, believes so. "This is the shape of things to come," he says.

Tomorrow a group of higher education experts will be pondering the question at a conference in London organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education and supported by The Independent .One of the speakers, Professor Alastair MacFarlane, principal of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, says: "This kind of development represents a very real threat to existing universities. It's a bit like the industrial revolution, when the craft industries were threatened with extinction."

New technology is bringing about radical changes in the way people learn. As the pressures on people to retrain for different jobs during their lifetimes increases and the span of learning changes, from two or three years after school to the whole of one's life, learning will go into the workplace and into the home, Professor MacFarlane believes. "That's really revolutionary."

Its effect on higher education could be dramatic. Universities will need to invest heavily in computer systems and in networks to enable students to tap in from wherever they happen to be. Virtual experiments on computer screens in virtual laboratories will replace real experiments in real labs. The conventional lecture could become a thing of the past as students choose whether or not to watch a lecture by Professor Bloggs on compact disc or video server.

Tutors and lecturers will still be needed, but their jobs will change. Increasingly, they will be supporting individual students swimming in the new, global ether. They will be working with colleagues in other institutions to produce shared resources, and will be tapping into cyberspace to comment on their students' work.

If all that sounds like an impossibly brave new world, it is. Even Professor MacFarlane thinks that the change he foresees will come about in a disjointed and piecemeal way. According to another speaker at the conference, Malcolm Skilbeck, deputy director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, universities are still stuck in conventional ways of teaching and learning.

The result is a massive duplication of course provision, he says. The basic lectures given to first-year students could be handled by Open University-style distance learning techniques. But it isn't so all over the country, physics, chemistry, maths, economics and English literature are being taught in much the same way by hundreds of lecturers.

Why has there been so little change, given the clear benefits: the opportunities to improve students' experience of learning, the freeing of teachers to concentrate on where they can add real value, and the chance to improve access? The answer, according to Professor MacFarlane, is that universities have not been forced to change - yet.

Not all experts are convinced that they will. Michael Shattock, who is registrar of Warwick University and will be a member of the panel at tomorrow's conference, questions whether new technology will alter the way teaching is carried out in the elite research universities. Face-to-face contact between teacher and taught will remain a key element in such institutions, he thinks, because that is what students and lecturers want.

"However, in higher education as a whole technology will have to substitute for staff in the teaching process," he says in a paper for the conference.

The consensus is that current trends will continue: more and more students will be flocking into higher education, with fewer of them resident in universities and more of them living at home and studying part time while at work. Given the pressure on places and funding, most experts envisage the end of that peculiarly British phenomenon: the divide between higher and further education.

"I think these things always happen much sooner than you think," says Sir Christopher Ball. "It'll certainly happen within 10 years from now, and maybe by the turn of the century. ."

Other countries, notably America and Japan, are being held up as examples. Both nations have structured systems in which students can progress from one kind of course and institution to another. Sir William Stubbs, director of the London Institute and former chairman of the further education funding council, is enthusiastic about Scotland, where 25 per cent of all higher education students are studying in further education colleges.

The Scots have traditionally had much higher rates of participation in higher education than the English. Substantial numbers of young people north of the border are now acquiring degrees through sub-degree level courses - just as Americans do, through community colleges and state universities. Once students get a toe on the ladder they are moving up, building up units, piling up higher qualifications, until they end up with a degree.

In Scotland the Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma have been made into modular courses. School leavers who have not made the grade at A-level or Highers sign up for them, and are away. The Scottish revolution is happening without any change in structure but through reforms in the curriculum and exams. n

'The End of the University: Thirty Years On' a conference organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education and supported by 'The Independent' is being held tomorrow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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