Universities in an age of information abundance

The current debate over higher education funding in the UK ignores the crucial point that information is becoming cheaper and easier to produce, challenging the monopoly of the university in public life.
Aaron Bastani
15 October 2010

The current debate over higher education funding in the UK ignores the crucial point that information is becoming cheaper and easier to produce, challenging the monopoly of the university in public life.

The Browne report on the future of university funding released this week has been subject to much debate in the political blogosphere and media. The broad proposition that is central to both the Browne report and the government’s increasingly concrete stance on reforming higher education funding is that, for teaching quality to be maintained, increased levels of funding for British universities are a neccessity in the medium to long term.

While the manner in which such funds would be raised is an area of disagreement among all three major parties this key point, greater amounts of capital will be required, has been broadly accepted as correct, especially amongst the Labour shadow cabinet.

The NUS and indeed many Lib Dems say that this should come from public funds. The government looks likely to propose an increase in tuition fees, while the opposition flip-flops over the progressive alternative of a graduate tax. What all parties neglect in the debate is the role of technological change and how it has already reduced the costs of what universities seek to do with students - namely reproduce, disseminate and explicate information. Indeed it has been contended that Moore’s Law, of exponential technological improvement, will have a greater impact on the quality of delivery in education (primary and secondary as much as tertiary, for that matter) than any increases in government spending or student spending over the coming period.

Information wants to be free

In Free: the Future of a Radical Price, the editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson discusses some of the implications of living in a world where information is so ubiquitous that one can refer to a situation of ‘informational post-scarcity’. Anderson claims that it is within this context, where internet bandwidth, computational storage and computing power halve in cost approximately every 18 months that information wants to be free. Such a position stands in antithesis to the thinking of policy-makers on the issue of tuition fees - whose thinking on the subject, no doubt subsequent to much lobbying by the Russell Group of universities, seems more consistent with a paradigm where information is becoming more expensive to distribute.

Only it isn’t. The cost of information is not going up, it’s halving and has been doing so approximately every eighteen months since the release of the first commercial transistor in 1954 and will continue to do so for the forseeable future. The the proposal to increase fees thus shows a political class out of touch with communication ecology that is fundamentally transforming the social world. Policy-makers are persisting with a institutional model that was created in the midst of a different age, one where information was highly scarce.

The proposition that in the 21st centuryinformation wants to be free  is true in two key respects - firstly, information and content can move more freely between persons and communities than ever before and are no longer the monopoly of elites as evidenced in peer-to-peer file sharing, citizen journalism and blogs. Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, the costs of information creation, reproduction and dissemination are being reduced much more quickly than legislators can ever possibly hope to adapt to.

Just as the arrival of the printing press permitted the possibility of universal literacy and hitherto impossible social innovations such as public libraries, mass education and informed, deliberational public spheres through the distribution of newspapers and other printed documents, as described by Jurgen Habermas, so too the information abundant world means that institutions predicated on the realities of information scarcity will become historical anachronisms. As Bruce Bimber puts it,

..vertically integrated firms, retail stores, administrative organisations and even universities are in part adaptations to a communications ecology in which information is costly and assymetric.

We are often told of the decline of those historical intermediaries of content and commodities between producers and consumers - namely newspapers and ‘offline’ retail stores . The implications of this same trend however for those ‘repositries’ of information of the industrial age, namely universities,  is rarely explored.

While the Conservative party in government has talked of being “post-bureaucratic”, in its efforts to explain why with advances in communications technology superior public policy outcomes need not necessarily depend on greater levels of funding (and many information technology scholars would agree with such an assertion) such thinking has not been extended to higher education 

The rise of the university

While the university within a European context can be traced back to eleventh century Bologna, the modern research-intensive university that sought to educate an increasingly affluent and mobile society, first came into existence in Germany in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The techno-economic context within which it was founded, was one where the creation and dissemination of information was prohibitively expensive.

This model was broadened throughout the second half of the twentieth century, by the architects of Europe’s post-war welfare states, to include individuals regardless of the ability to pay. The organisational model was not called into question (with the exception of the visionary Michael Young - founder of the Open University) fundamentally because although there had been alterations to the communications and information ecology it was still broadly speaking the same as it had been in the nineteenth century - with classes, seminars and libraries in fixed ‘offline spaces’, communication by mail and content being distributed through face-to-face interaction and the printed book. While the dreams were those of post-war twentieth century progressives, the means were very much those of nineteenth century technology.

And so to the era of the Blair-Brown years where we had a fees-and-grants based system that still attempted to synthesize social mobility and the values of a meritocracy with a dynamic and resource-rich higher education sector premised upon higher levels of government funding coupled with fees from those who could afford them.

The Coalition is now proposing to uncap tuition fees to compensate for a reduction in state support for higher education. Many left progressives want to scrap fees (or at least they did), while those on the right voice opinions ranging from advocating the ‘Harvard system’ of stipends and grants for the most deserving to a system of outright market determination of tuition fees for every course at every university (an outright abolition therefore of the existing cap).

The tragic point is that both right and left just don’t get it. The costs of what universities do is getting very cheap, very quickly. Indeed it has never been so cheap and will only get cheaper for the forseeable future. All we have to do is adapt.

The question that must be asked then is. “Why on earth should students be asked to pay an increased contributiuon in the form of higher tuition fees (or even hypothetically a graduate tax) when the fundamental costs of running a university are lower than ever before?"

Now this might seem like nonsense, but all those great, sweeping platforms you might have used at university in the last few years such as Moodle, Portico, are guess what, free. A few years ago while doing my graduate degree at UCL a  friend showed me how all his post-graduate lectures at the LSE were digitally recorded and available on MP3 and videofiles as shared course content. My initial reaction was to think ‘wow, that’s what you pay your money for’ and indeed this was a reaction born of the idea that we live in an age of information scarcity and that such innovations are expensive. Yet, as we all know, innovations such as the embedding of wikis, video and audiofiles within the online presence of any graduate course are in fact remarkably cheap.

And it’s not just moodle. Open source platforms are a veritable bonanza for higher education – why use Microsoft packages that include Office and Explorer when the free Open Office and Mozilla Firefox are so much better? Likewise, why have Windows as an operating system when Linux is free and by many measures a superior product?

In fact, why should universities have computers at all? After all the exponential drop in computing costs means that within a handful of years the idea of not owning several ‘prosumption’ (capable of both production and consumption of content) computers be they netbooks, notebooks, tablets, desktop and smartphones will be absurd. Subsequently the computing capabilities and costs of universities will be a wifi or VPN network and a moodle-like course platform which utilizes very cheap and exceptionally useful sound and video technologies. Furthermore, with the advent of the e-reader, universities will  no longer need to buy costly editions of books but will rather purchase copies of texts that will be available to students to lend, as is currently the case with books using platforms such as Google Books or Amazon who will inevitably establish bespoke products for universities.

Here too we are presented with a massive opportunity for savings and  an increased number of texts available to loan for students. There will be need for far fewer librarians, course administrators and thankfully for the environment, less paper.Greater numbers of graduate students coming on stream with fewer teaching jobs available means only one thing and this is already happening: greater numbers of graduate students teaching undergraduates.

Within this new paradigm the costs of university are massively reduced with running costs primarily residing with the things that they always have done and which have relatively little to do with the increases in quality over the last few years, namely estates and teaching staff. Lectures could even be conducted online, with students later discussing the merits of the material in smaller ad-hoc seminar groups overseen by research students, thus leaving professors more time to carry out what makes them passionate as scholars and what adds value to research intensive universities, namely research.

This is not to assert that tuition fees should be scrapped nor to articulate the belief that government funding should be reduced, rather the argument is made in the hope that by contextualising universities as ‘ repositories of information’ in an age where information wants to be free, one might establish that the debate over funding is in fact rather irrelevant.

The issue at stake is not ideology or what is the more ‘regressive’ or ‘progressive’ option - the issue is that such thinking is not adapting to the realities of the technology education now utilizes. More money will not inevitably drive standards up; the ever-reducing cost of computer and communication technologies almost certainly will.

Elsewhere I have written about the intergenerationally unjust nature of making Generation Y pay increased levels of tution fees and indeed of all the generations that merit paying for further education it seems almost ironic that it is those over the coming years that will pay the most.
To place so much focus on indebting young people to subsidize the university sector amounts to a state enforced private subsidy of the industry and will not incentivize such institutions to fully engage with the possibilities of a technological moment where the running costs of undergraduate and taught graduate degrees are set to massively diminish.

Such reasoning is not only intergenerationally unfair it is dismissive of an observable fact  - information wants to be free.

Aaron Peters is currently reading for a Phd in Political Science at the New Political Communications Unit at Royal Holloway University - where he is focusing on the impact of the internet on social movements and collective action. He also blogs at RadicalDandy.

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