I have written before on my worries about the big publishers taking over university education and this year it has begun as Pearson are accrediting a degree delivered by Royal Holloway. Soon McGraw-Hill and Wiley will follow as this is a multi-billion pound market and they cannot afford to get left behind. This couple with the governments new fees schemes is going to mean that higher education will have changed beyond all recognition within ten years. On our departmental away-day I said that this would be something to watch out for but I did not realise it would happen so quickly.
This week I had a short online survey from an International provider of educational resources and it asked me about Pearson, Longman and Edexcel. They asked what words and phrases I associate with Pearson and I said dangerous and scandal. This is because the head of Edexcel was forced to resign after they were recorded saying that people should do their exams because they are easier and they have a higher pass rate. Anyway this provider was of course Pearson and so my chances of a job working for them are now nil. So I had better ingratiate myself with McGraw-Hill or I might not have a future.
This lowering of standards as has happened at GCSE and A-levels because of exam boards competing for students is one of my concerns. There will be even more pressure at university level where the fees are much higher. A more serious problem is the ultimate consequence for universities. When you can get your Pearson, McGraw-Hill or Wiley degree it is not dependent on any particular institution and so students will go where it is cheapest, or where league tables say teaching is best.
Now the best universities according to the legue tables are the elite "Russel Group". I have worked for two of these universities and their teaching is actually alright but nothing spectacular, and often not very innovative. They are much more focussed on research - especially with the way government is now funding universities with research league tables and assessments. If they could have graduate schools and ditch under-graduates they would. They also pride themselves on setting their own curriculums and accreditation and this is not going to change. So you are not likely to get a Pearson degree from there.
The universities that focus on teaching are outside this group and so there will be a competition to deliver the corporate accredited degrees between the other universities. This will lead to mergers of universities and to some closing as competition increases. There will be downward pressure on fees that you can charge students and there will be a need to cut costs. This will mean less student contact and a higher student to staff ratio as well as using different low-cost methods of teaching. All of this leads to a poorer experience for students as they become homogenised and their education industrialised. There will be some winners but many losers.
If the Russell Group think they will come out of this unscathed they only need to look at the world of the super-market. In fact looking at the world rich list will aslo make it clear. They will keep to a high quality elite expensive delivery to those who can afford/want to be that bit different. But who makes most money? Wall-Mart, Tesco or Marks and Spencer? They will take the M&S option but the reality is that Tesco and Wall-Mart are where the money is. So universities will become places where they stack students high and sell degrees cheap because that is how to make money.