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Why go to university?

August 23, 2011

Leaving aside the discussion of value for money from a university education, why, if learning is what you are interested in, should you go to university at all? This is a separate issue from the instrumental/intrinsic value debate – see the blog Value for Money for this. What I wish to point out is that you can learn everything you would learn at university – get all the knowledge, all the expertise and scholarship – by staying at home and managing your learning via the web.

Pretty much everything you will learn on any undergraduate programme is out there on the internet somewhere: lecture notes; book passages; problem sheets; discussion forums and chat rooms to help you do the problem sheets, write the essays; even lectures on pretty much each topic by some of the greatest experts in the world are available on video hosting sites.

I can imagine a student with some leadership qualities and organisational skill arranging reading groups, seminars, chat room sessions etc and working through all the required material with a group of like-minded people, those keen to learn and explore the university syllabus in the most rigorous way possible.

So why should you pay big money to go to a university if you can get all your learning another, much cheaper, way?

There is no doubt that this question raises a challenge for universities. I will try to give some replies – of various different flavours – below.

1. Teaching in real time with real people. Despite the wonderful things available via the web, there is still a qualitative difference between learning from a good teacher in real-time and being in contact with flesh and blood, and the sort of learning mediated via electronics. There is pressure on universities to at least match the pedagogical stuff on the web, but the best universities, like UCL, are equipped to rise to this challenge and provide, with live teachers, at least as good pedagogy as one can find anywhere else.

2. The stamp of approval. Universities are trusted organs of society. A good degree, authorised from a good university, is a badge of competence and achievement. This is as it should be. Most universities have proved their worth to society and, over long periods in many cases, the people who work at universities have built trusted institutions whose approval, as an institution, carries weight in society. Despite the very real possibility that you could learn just as much studying outside in 3-4 years as you could by attending a university course, it will be difficult for future employers and society in general to verify your learning and experience without the university certification.

3. Keeping ahead of the game in what courses you are able to study. Even though a great deal of stuff is available electronically, it is always possible for universities to keep a little ahead of the game by offering innovative and creative courses which reflect new research, ideas, etc. On Arts and Sciences BASc we have commissioned a bunch of year 2 modules which do exactly that. Currently there is little out there that can match these sorts of innovative, progressive and relevant courses offered by top academics, so there is value in ‘being there first’, and getting a grip on these sorts of courses before they may be videoed and systematised in some way for the web.

4. Structure helps learning. We may not want to admit it, but it is really, really hard to keep the discipline to work through syllabus after syllabus and do all the problem sheets, essays and tasks required without the structure given by a university. And, yes, the occasional kick up the backside that a lecturer can give a students or the cold shower that the failing of an important exam can give to anyone who has not studied enough are an important part of the learning process. This is human nature. It is not impossible to get almost all the learning of a university course electronically (pace point 3 above), but most of us need the social and pedagogical structures to keep our learning on track.

5. Other students. The sheer number and diversity of students at the best universities means that you are more likely to meet and collaborate with like-minded people by being on site than by trying to go it alone or with a small group. It is an open secret that a great deal of your teaching will come from your fellow students – Peer Assisted Learning at universities tries to formalise this, and it is quite right to do so: ‘to teach something is to learn it twice’ – and you are simply more likely to meet the right peer teachers for you by finding friends and exploring other sorts of relationships throughout the whole university.

I think these 5 things give reason enough to sign up, join the campus and get stuck in to university life. But there is no doubt that the challenge from the internet is real, significant and historically new – and universities must keep a close eye on this and develop and respond accordingly.

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