Andrew Oswald: Universities should switch on to TV

'Surely it makes sense to tape a university's star lecturers and relay them around the world'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What did you do yesterday? If you are a normal Briton, you spent three hours watching television. Your attention switched in and out, depending on the sounds and images, while you read to your daughter or did The Independent crossword or drank peppermint tea. But you were always under its spell. TV moulded you (and me) yesterday. It will do so tomorrow.

What did you do yesterday? If you are a normal Briton, you spent three hours watching television. Your attention switched in and out, depending on the sounds and images, while you read to your daughter or did The Independent crossword or drank peppermint tea. But you were always under its spell. TV moulded you (and me) yesterday. It will do so tomorrow.

Television is the central tool of human communication in the 21st century. Yet British universities barely give it a thought. If you don't believe me, what is your university's TV strategy? It almost certainly has not got one. Our universities must start to capitalise on the remarkable possibilities offered by television. If this strikes you as strange, you probably do not realise that 600 million people watched the wedding of Charles and Diana. If so, you are out of touch with modern living and the future. In 2002, the man who is tired of TV is tired of life.

Two facts stand out. First, 80 per cent of British teenagers have a television in their bedroom. Second, watching television is the most-done activity after sleeping and work. Despite the rise of the internet, television will be this century the primary way to transmit ideas. Even if, like me, you are at heart a dry-as-dust researcher, what you do in your academic life is to promote new ideas. Well, TV is the modern forum for those.

We can run away from this. We can grumble under our breath about TV having a stream of jackasses and charlatans on it, assert that we only listen to the Today programme on Radio 4 and would not sully our PhD-honed minds with anything else, and mutter that it is only revered journals such as the American Economic Review that count. I sympathise. But unless you are a one-in-10-million genius, the world will pass you by and leave your thoughts unopened in the waste paper basket. Moreover, television is not going away, so it is imperative that scholars as a group learn to exploit it.

TV will never entirely replace journals and monographs. But it is a rich medium that we currently ignore. Just because our teachers trained us to look down on it is no reason for us still to do so. The Americans have already moved intellectually. It is hard to turn on CNN in a foreign hotel bedroom without finding a loquacious US academic. Yet even US universities have not decided how to cope with television's reach. We are all learning.

How, this century, should TV shape the activities of Britain's universities? The key issue, it should be stressed, is not about pleasing research councils or the fashionable notion of "dissemination". There are more important fish to fry.

First, universities should use TV as a channel for the communication of discoveries to researchers and students. Television channels, especially along the internet wires, are now cheap to run and are bound to proliferate. Strange though it sounds, I believe The University Channel is not far off. Maybe the Sky Uni Conference Channel and Quantum Mechanics Channel 3 will follow.

A second avenue for the future will be to use TV as a way to attract potential students. The young put lots of effort into choosing a small set of universities, but the final choice is then a close-run thing. This means that small advantages matter. Although it is unpleasant to face it, television watchers drink in the brand names and labels they see on the screen. Ask Coca-Cola, The Observer or Oxfam, or look at the statistical studies that have tested TV's impact.

You do not need formal adverts to advertise. But I expect to see many universities in my lifetime design expensive advertisements to appear on television. To some, that is an unpalatable thought. But our parents got used to slogans about the size of Renaults, and we shall probably grow accustomed to ads of university places.

The third future avenue for TV is as a teaching tool. Perhaps this is the most exciting seam of all. Here we have seen progress by Britain's most open and populous university, but older universities have done nothing innovative. It is time they did. Surely it makes sense to tape a university's star lecturers and relay those lectures around the world by television.

Finally, there is sheer self-defence. One reason why we have been so emasculated by successive governments is that we lacked people with the confidence to handle politicians in television debate. Britain's universities need to train their young lecturers to be the articulate TV defenders of higher education.

Television dominates the world of ideas. Universities need to wake up to that fact.

The writer is Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick

education@independent.co.uk

Comments