The rise of the virtual university

My latest column for Baillie Gifford – this month, I’m discussing whether the virtual university will ever replace the real thing, given the VERY persuasive financial upsides…

Virtual University

Iona Bain

If you were asked to conjure up a picture of university, what would spring to mind? Perhaps you’d be drawn to images of beautiful libraries, mortar boards and manicured lawns preserved down the generations. Or maybe it’s those hazy nights spent in bars and stimulating mornings in lecture theatres that best sum up the university experience for most people.

However, the seat of learning tomorrow could well be in our children’s bedrooms – right in front of a computer. If experts are to be believed, students may never have to attend university in any physical sense very soon. Some are, already, able to attain the highest possible qualifications in the comfort of their own homes, and it’s all thanks to the internet. The consequences this may have for young people’s education, and how parents save for it, could be startling.

The renowned financial journalist, Gillian Tett, spoke of this phenomenon – the “virtual university” – in a thought-provoking piece for the Financial Times Weekend Magazine earlier this year. It was prompted by her attendance at a debate during the Davos World Economic Forum, where a packed auditorium heard how the internet could well place universities “on the brink of dramatic disruption”. This could possibly overshadow any upheaval we’ve seen so far in finance, retail and media (all of which have been devastating enough).

Before I left Oxford four years ago, the wind of change was already sweeping through even the most staid colleges. Only a few years previously, all essays had to be deposited in our tutors’ ‘pigeonholes’ in the college’s entrance area, but emailing essays soon became the norm. An online database hosted all kinds of useful academic papers. Facebook was, at that stage, restricted to universities in the UK and already having a profound effect on how we socialised. Nonetheless, it still seems inconceivable that these august institutions will ever accept remote learning.

Yet TED, the U.S. organisation that provides online lectures, is gathering millions of fans all over the world, showing that the rise of gadgets like the iPad is making the quest for knowledge more convenient and egalitarian than ever. And it is the American universities that are taking this to the next level, just when they are drumming up interest among British students who have become disillusioned with rising tuition fees. (Last year, The Telegraph reported that the number of British students taking the mainstream US college entrance exam had increased by a third in recent times). Places like MIT and Stanford have long been putting coursework online for people to complete anywhere in the world, with the latter managing to attract a 12 year old girl from Pakistan to lessons on artificial intelligence, according to Ms Tett’s piece. Not only can anyone enhance their learning through the internet, they can actually gain worthwhile degrees. A bright young Brit could effectively attend Harvard without ever leaving Hertfordshire.

The benefits of this are self-evident; widening out access to education, erasing a huge number of the usual expenses associated with campus life at the drop of a hat. Surely universities can no longer charge top whack if fewer students live on campus and draw on facilities like libraries and lecture halls?

It’s certainly true that it’s getting much harder to justify this investment in one’s future. Those who started a degree last autumn will graduate with typical debts of £53,330, according to a study by LV=. The insurance company also predicted two years ago that almost half of all students will choose a local university and live at home with their family by 2020, slashing their living expenses. A recent survey by the Wesleyan Assurance Society showed that two thirds of parents are worried about how they’ll pay for further education. A third will even turn to their own parents – the bank of gran and grandad – for additional help.

However, the same research shows that the astronomical costs will not discourage 87 per cent of parents from advising their children to go to university. Furthermore, almost seven in ten families have already starting saving up for this vital milestone.

It’s clear that families are not betting on the cost of education falling anytime soon. Even if the online revolution takes off at UK universities, a more remote way of learning may never be a satisfying substitute for campus life as we know it. Many students may choose to live at home in the future but they’ll still want to attend lectures, read books in libraries, go to events and meet like-minded people. Traditional university may be a more expensive option in the short-term, but by integrating young people into valuable social and career networks at an early stage, it could reap huge rewards in the long-term. That’s why it’s paramount that young people have a choice about their education, and where possible, not let financial considerations dictate a huge decision in their lives. So the sooner that parents or grandparents start saving for university – whether it’s physical or virtual – the better.

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