Higher education should be on a high. Student numbers are growing by ten per cent each year. The total number of educators will triple over the next decade.
And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that by 2030 almost half of the world’s population will pass through higher education at least once in their lifetime. National investment continues to flood into higher education where governments strive to develop high-skilled economies. In much of the world, the value of HE is self-evident and unquestioned.
And yet, in the West at least, the social contract between HE and society is eroding. In part, this is a consequence of the student-pays model and the emergence of a consumerist ethic that has changed forever the way HE is perceived. But it is also partially self-inflicted – a lack of transparency over senior pay, foot-dragging on diversity, and a short-sighted justification of degree value founded on lifetime earnings. Post-Brexit, and post-Trump, we look haughty, money-grubbing and elitist. HE is often viewed more as a private enterprise and less as a public good.
We need to restore public trust and confidence in the value of HE – and to maintain it in those parts of the world where it is still enjoyed. Partly that means recognising that some of the old 19th century tropes don’t play well today, as Mark Leach suggested in the enemy within. But it’s also about recognising that, for many, the dynamic between HE and society has fundamentally changed. In a massified HE system, where very few universities generate less than 50% of their income from student fees, the student academic experience is a key determinant of public trust and confidence. Learning and teaching matters, now more than ever.
This is not to say that research and civic engagement are not important in strengthening the defence of HE. Nor is it to argue that HE’s wider moral purpose as social improvement is dead, though it is unfashionable. It is simply to say that the primary touch point between HE and society is the student experience of learning and teaching. We lose sight of that at our peril.
Making learning and teaching the best it can be is now vital to restoring public trust and confidence in HE, as well as being an inherently sensible aspiration. The question is how best to achieve this? For decades, there have been a hotch-potch of attempts to improve learning and teaching. Initiatives, government funding and agencies have come and gone across the world, some successful, others less so. But always with one common denominator – as imperatives to drive change from the outside.
The difference now is that the imperative comes from within.
A collective determination
The pressure on today’s educators is greater than ever before – and it is unrelenting. Massification, globalisation, increasing competition, new technology – being an educator today is very different to the experience of twenty or thirty years ago. The increasingly popular term educator – which encompasses academics, technicians, librarians and all those who, in some way, support student learning at all levels – tacitly recognises the way in which learning and teaching has evolved beyond the sage on stage to a richer, more varied experience.
As educators, we have embraced change and continue to do so. We want to improve learning and teaching and do the best we can for our students and society – despite what politicians choose to think. We want to develop our skills and expertise. And we want to do this together. We are fundamentally collegial, committed to sharing our knowledge, experience and practice, though we feel increasingly vulnerable and isolated. And this is true across the world. But, while research is well-catered for in terms of global groups, networks and fora – and, critically, has clearer pathways for career progression – learning and teaching has for decades been the poorer cousin.
A grass-roots approach
Which is why OneHE has come about. OneHE aims to be a global network of like-minded educators with a passion for learning and teaching. We want to bring educators together to share ideas, solve common challenges and inspire each other – to develop our practice and that of others for the common good. And we want to help existing networks to deepen engagement with their communities and connect them with others across the world.
At one level, OneHE is simply about providing educators worldwide with a member-led platform that they have lacked until now. A global directory allows individuals to find others working in their field who share their interests. Networks enable communities of practice to extend beyond borders and institutions, both within and between disciplines. Forums help educators to find solutions to common problems from peers and to offer support in return. And there is collaborative space to promote projects, making it easier for educators to find partners and develop joint working. All of which creates new opportunities for individuals to demonstrate their impact in a field that, beyond laudable initiatives like Advance HE’s fellowships, is starved of external markers of esteem.
At another level, OneHE is about encouraging a sea-change in learning and teaching globally. The challenges we face as educators are experienced across the world and yet there is also innovation and expertise in abundance that is waiting to be tapped. Leveraging technology, we can build on the wisdom of the crowd and capitalise on new collaborative tools. This principle underpins the OneHE Foundation, which will crowd-source innovation in learning and teaching from members and put these proposals to a vote of the membership to determine which idea is funded. Critically, OneHE is focused on needs-driven innovation, directed by educators themselves on their own terms and towards shared goals.
It is extremely important that, this time, funding is sustainable so that innovation can be cultivated, incentivised and rewarded for the long term. It is for this reason that OneHE will charge a small membership fee – equivalent to a cup of coffee a month – for individuals who access the full platform, while offering free space to private networks and free access to their members. This approach ensure that OneHE will remain a member-led space, free from advertising. And it is why OneHE was created as a profit-with-purpose company, capable of raising social investment that was previously unavailable to other bodies. The commitment to reinvesting in grants is written into the founding documents and social investors must sign up to this approach. OneHE is also looking at crowdfunding to enable greater community ownership.
Openness and transparency
This approach signals an important commitment to openness and transparency as the basis for lasting change and improvement. It reflects the new dynamics of power and influence: self-organisation, opt-in decision making, collaboration, crowd wisdom, sharing and a do-it-ourselves ethic. This is about educators acting together to improve the impact and effectiveness of what we do. We want to hear from all networks and individuals who share our passion for learning and teaching.
Now, educators have a new, global opportunity to be the best they can possibly be, for themselves and for their students. As has been noted elsewhere, there’s no reason for enhancement to have hard borders. Any improvement in the student academic experience that results can only help to improve the public perception of HE in the West and to maintain trust and confidence in other countries where the value of our work is understood and enjoyed.