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Last modified: 19 February 2016

Betting against an avalanche and winning, for now.

On March 11th, 2013, Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi at IPPR published An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead. If you've got any interest in higher education, you should read it. If you want a brief introduction first, why not try the FT's Helen Warrell's initial reaction. (£)


The avalanche has been building up for a decade.

A decade ago we were sharing and collaborating to create note sets like these and new services like thinkswap are the same idea updated with modern technology. Five years later when I needed to learn about linear algebra I didn't wait for a course to start, I downloaded these lectures from MIT and the accompanying problem sheets. I taught and asessed myself. If Universities enable it, a new generation of students will do the same as undergraduates. They will learn quicker, achieve more, and do it all more cheaply.

I am far from alone in my approach to learning but many inside academia think the risk of an avalanche is over-stated. That is a risky gamble.


Fees are speeding up change.

In November 2010, at the height of demonstrations against rising tuition fees at UK universities, I attended an open conversation with the then Vice-Chancellor of The University of Leeds, Michael Arthur. I asked how he thought a prospective student should choose a University. He could offer only vague replies.

Yet Professor Arthur was at the time, in his role as head of the UK's Russel Group of leading Universities, advocating a 'market' in higher education. Variable tuition fees would empower young people to choose, he said. But when the leader of a University cannot explain how 17 year-olds are supposed to choose where to spend the £60k their higher education will cost them: the system is not a market.

Sure enough, a few months after our talk, and as in any market with no mechanism of competition, all Russel Group Universities announced that they would be charging the maximum possible fee. As predicted, with no way to distinguish Universities on anything but reputation, and with all Universities charging the same fees, the least good of the top Universities cannot now fill all their places.

Prof. Arthur was caught off guard by my question and I can't blame him; he'd spent months facing horrible personal attacks related to his tuition fees stance. Following his poor answers I wrote him, and the Vice-Chancellor for learning at Leeds, this letter.


Rewarding failure at Leeds.

A year after writing to Prof. Arthur I asked him at another Q&A if he'd read my letter. He said he hadn't. So I sent it again. Two months later I was told, by his secretary, that he had now read it. I heard nothing more.

Of course, the Vice-Chancellor of a University is very busy and maybe Prof. Arthur already has a plan. But let's examine his record. Leeds has fallen out of the list of the world's top 100 Universities while Manchester and Sheffield have cemented their positions. Leeds has no academic superstars like Brian Cox at Manchester, Jim Al-Khalili at Surrey or Tony Ryan at Sheffield. Leeds still has no publicly available content or teaching to compare with leaders like LSE. As a result, the University cannot now fill all its places in some leading subjects.

The reward for Michael Arthur's record of failing to adapt to change? He was chosen to run UCL.


The Avalance is Coming but some Universities are pretending it isn't. I hope UCL's new boss will learn from the mistakes he made at Leeds. A good place to start might be to read that letter I sent him two and a half years ago.


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