Death of the UK University – not a moment too soon

Adrian just wrote an excellent article for the Telegraph, on the role of physical Universities, and the extent to which they’re rapidly becoming irrelevant, eclipsed by low-fi educational resource on the internet.

QFT, a few hilights that fit *entirely* with my own experiences, both as an undergraduate, and as a tutor for undergraduates:

  1. modern lecturers are merely “talking textbooks”
  2. we act as if a non-teaching degree miraculously makes you “a brilliant teacher”
  3. most universities only give each student a few hours a week of face-time

and, personally … although I have a Computer Science degree from Cambridge University, and although the syllabus was great, and the faculty highly skilled, I credit a lot of my degree to:

the University of Hawaii

…because their lecture slides were of a universally higher quality than the sum total of Cambridge University’s slides+lecturer+tutors.

That’s shameful, on Cambridge’s part, but it also underlines Adrian’s points: I graduated almost ten years ago, and the writing was already on the wall.

Disruption is already here

The beautiful (terrifying) thing about disruptive businesses is that – for the incumbents – they are invisible and seemingly irrelevant until it’s too late. And then, suddenly, the disguise is thrown off, and the incumbents are put out of business in a matter of months.

Universities that had coasted for decades (or centuries) on a patherically weak teaching structure are now facing real disruptive business, including competitors that don’t even *need* revenue. Nowadays, I think many Universities are soon to find they’re already too late to turn around their own laziness and buck-passing. The (hidden) revolution has already begun…

7 replies on “Death of the UK University – not a moment too soon”

I work at a university as a research assistant, and get to talk to lecturers every day. It’s hardly a hidden phenomenon to them, because there is always a constant pressure from the university to cut costs. The university would be very happy not to pay any lecturers, and just take all the money from the customers. er… I mean students.

When, then, do so very very VERY few lecturers show any interest at all in improving their teaching standards?

To teach simple basics to 12 year old children, you need a 1 year specialist “teaching” degree – a PGCE; why is it that to teach complex topics to 18 year-olds, you need … absolutely nothing?

How many lecturers ever go out and learn how to teach? How many ever go out and learn how to present, how to “lecture”?

I know lots, and I’ve met many more, and you’d be forgiven for thinking most of them couldn’t care less whether the students learn anything … or not.

Without a doubt, most lecturers don’t care about teaching. But this is because they didn’t choose to become lecturers. They came to do research, and then were forced to do it for department budget reasons. No one is given any time to develop their teaching skills.

I’m not trying to argue that universities actually have a future… just that it’s not all the lecturers’ fault :)

Well, I’m a VL at a UK university right now, and I’m…not really seeing the description of the course I’m teaching there, Adam.

It’s already hard enough for them to find people who have industry experience to teach at all*, if you start imposing qualifications for university-level tutoring, this will become basically impossible.

(*They hired me specifically BECAUSE I have industry experience, and the module’s I’m teaching – and writing the lectures for – are groupwork based)

Regardless, a lot of people who would be good candidates for the industry won’t have degrees in future, we need to look at setting up some kind of vocational teaching and encourage small companies to take on apprentices.


There are exceptions, but I’ve shared my experiences with many others, both tutors and graduates, and found overwhelmingly similarity across regions, subjects, and so-called “quality” of University. The only major discrepancy was that some subjects seemed to consistently be much better taught – e.g. Engineering seemed to have a better level of “teaching” going on at a lot of places.

Most lecturers I’ve spoken to have either stated, baldly “there is no problem” – or have gone off on a thinly-veiled rant about how much they detest students and have no interest in whether anyone learns anything from their lectures (but they’re happy to accept money for pretending to teach them).

Which puts them as close neighbours to those living off benefits who consider “being paid not to work” as a right. Why on earth should everyone else have to work for their living, and academics get some god-given right to simply be paid to enjoy themselves doing research?

@Andrew – on topic of lack of degrees for future workers

From personal experience, in the long run I think we need do nothing at all, beyond reducing the number of university places. Especially given “vocational teaching” is plagued with even more infamous failures – no matter how hard people have tried to make it work – I just don’t think we really know how to do that, *yet*.

Few companies in tech really hire graduates specifically – most of them hire bright, interested, motivated, young people who are eager to be trained. It just so happens that if you tick those boxes, you have traditionally had a 95% chance of also having been to uni – so “hire uni grads” has been a lazy shortcut for HR depts and hiring managers.

So … if we can take away that crutch, companies will IMHO rapidly revert to hiring young people in the same way they hire everyone else: interviewing and guessing, and hoping it turns out right. And firing them at the end of probation period if not.

Eh. The big companies will continue to insist on it, and smaller companies have been very unwilling to take on even recent graduates, because they only have 4-5 people total and can’t afford to do training (especially in design!).

Heck, the lack of ANY sort of training in the games industry is…notable, in my experience. Not to mention many visa’s require degrees, which is going to screw a lot of people over in the future.

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