Learning a serious business

We may not realise it, but a global revolution is under way in how education is organised and delivered; 'Students will "shop" for knowledge from diverse sources in a much more chaotic way'
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This week there have been two small signs of change in the education industry, surface rumblings which indicate the seismic shifts taking place far below. They are the NUT's dropping of its opposition to grant-maintained schools, and reports of the Government's plan to adopt some kind of voucher system for nursery schools.

Both issues touch sensitive political nerves. In this country, we tend to discuss education in ideological terms - how far the state should have control over the curriculum, how parental choice should best be met - rather than in industrial terms. And as a result we are only dimly aware of the way in which change here fits into the world picture.

Throughout the developed world, shifts are taking place both in what people want from education and how those demands are being met. Cumulatively these will lead to changes in the education industry as big as the advent of universal primary education in the second half of the last century, or the expansion of higher education in the past 35 years. These shifts constitute both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is that we have traditional strengths in education on which we can build. The threat is that if we fail to respond to change, we will make ourselves poorer and more miserable.

So what are these global shifts? First, there is the trend to lifelong learning. Instead of education being a one-shot thing between the ages of five and 22, it is becoming a continuous process. We do not in general go back to school, but we learn new things every day from the media and from the products and services we buy. The personal computer has meant that a whole generation of people have had to learn in middle age how to type; the VCR has failed to teach many of that generation how to set the date and time on a digital clock.

Second, education, like other industries, is becoming driven by consumers rather than producers. While children may have little choice in the education they are offered (for them schooling is a bit like petfood: the purchaser does not actually have to consume the product), in other segments of the education market, particularly higher education, consumers are exercising more and more power. Look at the way the new universities are generating exotic variations on their courses (Russian with computer studies, for example), rather as supermarket chains generate ever more exotic variants of yoghurt.

Third, the frontier between education and training is becoming increasingly blurred. Rover is perhaps the best example of a large British company committing itself to improving the educational level of its workforce, doing everything from teaching remedial maths to sponsoring staff through PhDs. Rover's former chairman, Sir Graham Day, believes the company's large increases in productivity have only been achievable because it made a massive educational effort.

Rover is just one example; all large companies spend money on something they call training, but which is really much broader, often having no immediate benefit to the company or its customers.

Fourth, there is a similar frontier between education and entertainment, which is also breaking down. Wise educators have long used techniques from the entertainment industry to get their message across: Sesame Street was a good example of television as an educative tool. But we are in the very early stages of a multi-media revolution in which film and television will shape the way we learn.

That leads to global shift number five: the change in technology. There are many strands to this, but the starting point is that in all service industries capital has been used either to replace labour or to use it more efficiently. Education has been slow to apply the available kit. But our new universities, in particular, are beginning to find ways of cutting costs and still delivering improved service. One way is to rebalance their teaching, cutting lectures, increasing study time on computers (probably networked) and buttressing this system with more tutorials.

Allied to this is change number six: the substitution of serial learning with parallel learning. Most teaching at present is structured by the teacher, who supplies a stream of knowledge, or at least guides the student to that stream. In future, students will learn not only at their own pace but according to their own choice; they will "shop" for knowledge from diverse sources and in a much more chaotic way.

Seventh, whatever the method of supplying the service, there will be more measurement of results. In education, measurement of both performance and customer satisfaction is very primitive. Most service businesses have monthly performance targets and publicise whether the various divisions are achieving these. Compare this with the way Oxford has tried to suppress its Norrington league tables showing which colleges get the best degrees.

Eighth, under pressure from consumers, educational establishments have increasingly sought to identify their unique selling proposition using service-industry criteria: are they a low-cost producer, and if not, why not? Should they go for volume (nutty, if there are no economies of scale)? Are there exploitable niches which they could seek to develop? Do they have an exploitable brand name?

Leading on from this comes, ninth, the import/export question. At school level, the education industry has long been principally a domestic business, for obvious reasons. Higher education has had an export business, in the shape of foreign students. But we are beginning to see educational establishments setting up overseas units. I suspect that higher education is in much the same position as the retailing industry in 1960: a domestic industry poised to become an international one, but facing a very bumpy ride as it does so.

Finally, and arguably most important of all, there is the vexed question of funding, of how the different revenue streams will change. Britain has an unusually centralised system of funding, with heavy dependence on the taxpayer. But there is also a large fringe industry involved in language teaching, management training, educational tourism and the like which is based in the private sector and run on wholly commercial lines. This revenue stream will surely grow, relative to the others, whatever happens to grant-maintained schools or nursery education vouchers.

Others may be able to add to these 10 aspects of change - and it is hard to know what weight to give to each. What is clear, though, is that they are self-reinforcing: for example, the more that education seeks commercial funding, the more it will have to supply commercial performance data. It is also clear that this is not just a British issue, for the education industry is in the early stages of becoming a world business. We fear we are seeing British education being haltingly privatised; in reality it is becoming de-nationalised, subject to a set of global forces as powerful as the advent of the motor car or the supermarket.