Future Campus vs Why Have a Campus?

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Is the heart of university learning – the traditional campus – about to change forever? As many organisations look to drastically reduce investment in fixed costs and people space via more agile working, why are universities swimming against the tide of the technology revolution?

Cloud services, the availability of superfast broadband and the increased expectation of virtual consumption – be that music & entertainment, shopping or work environments - is resulting in a radical shift in service provision.

So, when others are busily divesting themselves of buildings and associated assets to take advantage of this technological agility, it seems contrary that some of the most forward-looking institutions are investing in campus’ to accommodate thousands of students.

According to Ray Irving, former Director of Teaching and Learning Support at Warwick Business School, most universities are still following teaching methods used by ancient civilizations, gathering large groups of people together at a specific time to listen to a speaker in one physical place; the amphitheatres of old. Will this make sense to today’s 7 year olds who are tomorrow’s HE customers?

Many will argue, rightly, that there has been significant investment in recent years in adapting or building lecture theatres that incorporate lecture capture technology to provide access online, but why do it in the first place? 

In 2016 the Vice Chancellor of Adelaide University publicly said, “Lectures are a relic”. This was a brave move. But it begs an important question of students and parents who fund three years or more of campus led learning. Debts of £50,000+ are becoming the norm at the end of university life. 

So where are the pioneers and those who will rip up the rule book to protect their future customers? Other organisations have also confronted this potential seismic shift. When Jaguar Land Rover were asked some time ago who they saw as toughest competition, they surprised the world with their answer of ‘Google’. They had already identified that the massive accumulation of data that Google maps had provided would lead to associated product development for Google with the development of driverless cars. 

The counter argument to the concept of a virtual campus is that the ‘physical’ university is so much more than a degree; it’s a life experience. The campus itself represents the heart of a creative community. UCL’s Chief Information Officer, Mike Cope, certainly agrees stating that, “being physically together in a single location enables students to benefit from both life and academic experience and is at the heart of the student experience”.  Mike went on to say “perhaps it’s not just one or the other, there must be place for a blended approach that combines the campus experience with an online component seamlessly enabled by technology”

More recent investment in the student experience for UCL has centred less on traditional commodity IT investment and more on leading edge technology to enhance teaching, learning, research and academic process such as enrolment; module selection; research grants and resources. What Mike does acknowledge, however, is the challenge to bring together some of the most digitally literate ‘customers’ on the planet with a more digitally conservative academic base. Agility and continued investment are both required to bridge this gap and it is here that technology can often lose out to the physical assets of the university estates, which more often than not will still take priority in terms of budget allocation.  One wonders whether future generations might look back in bemusement at some of these decisions.

However, when balanced against an investment of £60,000, it’s likely that some students may look to gain this life experience and independence in other ways. The gap year is already now an accepted right of passage, but perhaps could now become the means to gain an education rather than the bit in the middle. Today's students are continuously “connected” and have a huge source of interactive reference material, be this via YouTube, Instagram or WhatsApp etc. So, what will anchor them to a campus based education system?

 Is there the danger that higher education delivered via a campus experience will become the choice of the financially elite; something for those who have both the time and money to invest. The recently published UCAS 2019 Student Lifestyle report shows the average student spends £2000 in preparation for university even before fees kick in and, once there, 22% travel home at least once a week.

In a highly competitive global HE market, it will be those ahead of the digital curve that will gain market share. Balancing the progressives, however, will be resistance from some parts of the academic community who are committed to a more traditional approach to teaching and learning. 

Lessons around the pace of change can also be learnt from the University of Sussex, who by their own admission, according to former Pro Vice Chancellor of Research, Michael Davies were “a generation behind when it came to technology.” This was brought home when two successive system crashes, due to data overload, resulted in missed key deadlines when students couldn’t upload their essays. This had an immediate negative impact upon the student experience with ensuing complaints highlighting the gap between student expectations and the university’s ability to deliver. This was the catalyst to prompt Sussex to not just address this issue but re-evaluate system requirements for the next generation. A catch up plan was dismissed in preference for a leap frog strategy.

It will be the job of those at the top to constantly horizon scan and embed technological transformation across all university departments. This is not simply the role of the digital or tech team but the responsibility of the entire leadership team. Future proofing IT infrastructure is a basic requirement; pioneering new models of delivery is what will really give the edge.