The story so far

In an earlier post (Using technology to improve the cost-effectiveness of the academy: Part 1), I argued that higher education institutions were suffering systemic problems trying to deal with the challenge of increasing access, increasing or even maintaining quality, and lowering costs, despite extensive use of ICTs.

In the second post in this series (A vision for the future: Using technology to improve the cost-effectiveness of the academy: Part 2) , I argued that we needed new visions for the university that tried to deal with the challenge by making more cost-effective use of ICTs, but also, more importantly, requiring major cultural and organizational changes, and I offered my own alternative vision for the university in the future. At the end of this post, I suggested that these changes are nevertheless unlikely to occur, despite the challenge. In this post, I will explore the systemic barriers to change.

Satisfaction with the basic traditional university model

Despite lots of usually justified grumbling by faculty about overwork, too large classes, and increasing amounts of time spent on bureaucratic form-filling for accountability exercises, the basic model of teaching through classrooms on campuses with fixed schedules and timetables is generally accepted as the ‘best’ one. All that is needed is more resources for more professors and smaller classes. However, for most post-secondary institutions in even the most economically advanced countries, we have seen that this is not going to happen.

The status of the Ivy league universities

The closest to the ideal model for the majority of academics, students and the public are the traditional Ivy league universities: Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. Of course, these offer in the main first class university education. Students have relatively close contact with the ‘best minds’, have small classes and excellent facilities. More importantly access to these universities opens doors to top quality jobs and influential social and cultural networks. It would be madness for these institutions to change radically. They have a largely unassailable competitive advantage. They are well funded, have enormous student demand for places, and great prestige with governments and the public alike.

The problem though is that too many other institutions wish to aspire to this model. The importance paid to university rankings and mission statements such as ‘to be one of the 100 top universities in the world’ are symptoms of this aspiration. The Ivy League institutions are by definition elite institutions. It is not a model that can be economically reproduced in very large numbers, and certainly is not a model that can be reproduced with the kind of resources most public institutions are likely to access. It is with these less well-funded public institutions where the real problem lies. They cannot serve large numbers well by using a watered down version of traditional teaching. As a result, many students are getting a poor deal.

The solution then is not to abolish the still valuable if elite and socially divisive Ivy League universities, but to find models that better serve the vast majority of university and college students. This though is a challenge if such institutions try to ape – and ape badly – the Ivy League institutions.


Coming more specifically to using information and communications technologies to improve the cost-effectiveness of universities. the governance system of universities militates against major change. For good reasons, in most economically advanced countries, universities are relatively independent of government. Basically the attitude of universities to government is ‘Throw the money over the wall and go away.’ Governments in some countries have responded to this by demanding greater accountability (e.g. the Spellings Commission in the USA, the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK, and Degree Quality Assurance committees in Canada.) However, these agencies or commissions do not have the mandate to challenge the basic model – they just want to be sure that the existing model is running as well as possible.

Also, in the last 10-20 years, governments have by and large retreated from creating alternative models such as the open universities established in the 1970s and 80s. Where they have attempted to establish new models – such as the UK’s e-University – they have often been disasters. The policy in recent years, especially with regard to ICTs, is to hope that the integration of ICTs will lead to change within existing institutions. As we have seen, by and large this hope has largely been disappointed, in terms of major structural changes.

But the real hope for change has to come from within the more traditional, state-funded public universities, simply because that’s where he majority of university students will be found. Here again, though, internal governance is a major barrier to systemic change. Sangra (2008) found in an in-depth study of the governance of ICTs in five European universities that in general, the universities had weak governance structures for decision-making and implementation, and in particular lacked well-defined strategic directions or rationales, with regard to using ICTs for teaching.

One reason for this is that decision-making is deliberately dispersed in universities. The autonomy of the individual faculty member, and the view that senior academic administrators are there to serve the needs as much of the faculty as the students, means that it is difficult to make decisions for radical change. The demand has to come from the professors themselves, and we have seen that what they want is the traditional, elite model. There are then no real incentives for change, either internally or externally, and few power levers to bring about such change.

What can be done?

The success of open universities in the 1970s and 80s does suggest that governments acting with wisdom (don’t laugh) and determination can bring about significant change in the higher education system, and it is probably time to see some more experimentation with new ICT-based models at least sponsored or encouraged by government (although calling them ‘virtual’ universities is probably not going to be helpful.) What is really needed are some models deliberately designed around hybrid learning, to cater for lifelong learners, up-grading of workers in vocational, health and other knowledge based industries, and minority groups not well served by the existing system (such as First Nations in Canada), possibly on a private/public partnership funding model.

Governments do provide guidance and some incentives for change, mainly through increased funding to enable student numbers to increase, and on rare occasions, will direct that money be spent on innovation and change. One example was the government of British Columbia, which between 1994 and 1995, withheld a total of 3.5% of operating budgets over two years, which the institutions then had to bid for through projects that supported innovation and change. One outcome of this policy was the development of WebCT (later bought by Blackboard) at UBC. This development was directly funded from the innovation fund, and had a major impact on the uptake of online learning worldwide. Another example is the Open University of Portugal, which was given clear instructions by the Portuguese Minister of Education in 2006 to modernise or close down. As a result it moved all its print-based correspondence courses online within 18 months, after training all faculty members not only in technology but also in a constructivist pedagogical approach.

Also, it should be recognised that the for-profit sector in the USA and Malaysia especially has been successful in developing online universities, such as Wawasa Open University in Malaysia and Kaplan University, University of Phoenix Online, and Full Sail University in the the USA.

But the challenge is whether traditional, public universities can make radical changes internally. Without strong incentives, and more clearly defined governance structures, change is likely to be slow and piece-meal. The danger is that change never reaches a critical mass, and the system is locked into an inefficient traditional model of public mass higher education for ever, or at least until the public gives up, and turns it over to the private sector.


I believe that it will be possible for some state-funded public universities radically to innovate and change their structures and teaching methods, and become more efficient and effective, through the use of ICTs. This will happen though only if there are strong incentives, both externally, and internally. This will also require strong leadership committed to fundamental change. Above all, for universities to use ICTs more efficently and effectively, an overhaul of traditional governance structures will be required, to ensure faculty engage and buy into the need for change, and to provide the means for ensuring implementation and maintenance of change.

Because the issue of governance is so critical for improving the cost-effectiveness of universities through the use of ICTs, Albert Sangra and I are co-authoring a book on the governance of ICTs in the university, which is to be published by Jossey-Bass in 2010.


Sangra, A. (2008) The Integration of Information and Communication Technologies in the University: Models, Problems and Challenges (La Integració de les TICs a la Universitat: Models, Problemes i Reptes) Unpublished Ph.D., Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain (Original in Catalan: for an extensive English summary, click here).


  1. Tony, I am enjoying your posts on this subject, which is one I am study as well. I agree with your account of the structural and organizational barriers in traditional higher education institutions. It impedes progress at times and is putting these institutions behind in the reach for better access, increased student experience, and effective use of technology.

    However, I would be cautious not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and continue to maintain the wonderful and important aspects of universities, such as their commitment to discovery, the search for truth (?), educating citizens, etc. I am concerned if we can maintain such ideals in an educational system that might be learning towards consumerism – i.e. building what students need and I suspect they need employment. Thoughts?

  2. Hi, Kelly.
    I completely agree that we want to preserve the core mission of the university. I just want to see it accomplished more effectively and more efficiently.
    However, while technology can facilitate non-vocational/professional learning and development, and certainly helps in creating new knowledge and more particularly in disseminating it, I still believe it’s main contribution will be toward developing skills of knowledge workers, because they need to know how to use technology in their work – although we all need to know how to use technology well in everyday life as well.

    Thanks again for making an important contribution


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