Collaborate to compete?

I’ve taken the title of this post from a recently published report to HEFCE from the Online Learning Task Force. You can read it here. The report argues for greater collaboration between universities and the private sector in developing on-line distance learning courses.   The basis for such a belief is that

The HE sector has been talking about the potential of on-line learning for well over ten years. (para 1.12, p4)

the implication being that talking isn’t the same as doing and that very little progress has actually been made. (No argument about that here!) The report then goes on to look at some case studies of successful private/public collaboration, some of which are in fact, very interesting.  There is clearly some good practice in terms of  getting information to students, clarity about what is offered, and who is doing the teaching. BPP’s offering for example, appears to be a reasonably well designed, professional looking web site.

The issue that I think the report largely misses,  is the relatively narrow curriculum that the private sector seems willing to support. There are fairly obvious reasons for that. Here’s a quotation I found the other day from an article by a US writer, Alan Levine

Higher Education an appealing investment for the private sector. Not only is it perceived as troubled, and slow to change, but it also generates an enormous amount of cash, and its market is increasing and growing globally. “Customers”, better known as students make long term purchases lasting 2-4, or even more years, thereby providing a very dependable cash flow and revenue stream. Enrolment in HE is counter cyclical, which is very unusual in a business

You can read the article in full here.  Following Levine’s logic to the end though it seems to me that there is actually a rather limited incentive for the private sector to get involved in Higher Education. It is only likely to do so where the market is actually for training and there are profits to be made.  If you go back to BPP’s web site their slogan is “Professional Education: Developing your career”, and you will look in vain for courses in History, Art, Classics, English, or even modern languages. Not that there is anything wrong with developing your career of course. But I’m not sure that an economy where everyone’s a tax lawyer is likely to be terribly sustainable.

Where I think the report is valuable, is that it is quite clear that the failure of HE to advance distance learning is not really a technological problem. I’ve been around educational technology long enough to be convinced that sitting around waiting for the next upgrade of Blackboard, or Sharepoint won’t make it happen. (Neither for that matter will replacing one system with another.)  If you want e-learning to happen, then it’s got to be about changing the mind set of the people who use it. So the way Moodle  (or whatever) handles assessments isn’t the way you like to do it? Well, frankly, if one wants to bring about change, I think one does have to be prepared to compromise a little bit.

I am aware that the competition referred to in the report’s title is between UK higher education and the HE systems of competitor countries, but I’m not sure that’s quite how it will play out. I suppose, what I’m getting at here, is that if we can’t bring about this kind of change, then the private sector is going to come in and we won’t be collaborating to compete with other countries, but rather  Universities will end up collaborating to be absorbed into a very different, and I think much less universal, higher education system.