Sunday 18 December 2011

An Idea for Public Education: Disintermediation!

The problem: public education at tertiary level in the humanities, in the UK, has been abolished. In some other places in the world it has never existed. We even now hear regular denials that a Public Good is obviously constituted by an accessible system of advanced training in the great ideas and arguments that humans have come up with over the course of their history. 

There are large numbers of people, some of whom I know personally, who want to study but can’t afford it and are terrified of incurring lifelong debt. Some of them belong to the long-term unemployed and are bored to insanity. There are also many people, some of whom I know, who would love to teach them and are prepared to do so for free. Pro Bono edification.

The only thing that is stopping the aspiring learners meeting the aspiring teachers is the 'For-Profit' model that has been imposed on Higher Education, along with self-appointed professional managers. These people, often scarcely literate, work on behalf of neither students nor teachers but for themselves, thereby extracting large salaries.

The solution: wide publicity surrounding a really ‘open’ university--one so open that it is, in fact, free of charge altogether.  I propose a new model of an inclusive university which shows governments and Vice-Chancellors and ‘For-Profit Educators’ that all you actually need for exciting and useful education is a keen learner and a bit of inspiration and guidance from an expert teacher. The father of my children tells me that removing the greedy middle management, which skims layers of unnecessary renumeration off the fundamental encounter between student and teacher, is called by business people ‘disintermediation’.

Lectures could be ‘donated’ by experts and uploaded on; committed academics, with PhD students to support them, could donate an hour or two a week to run Skype and/or email seminars, and grade a paper; materials would need to be exclusively those which are available free-of-all-financial-charge on the web. I have already run several such courses, aware of the poverty afflicting some of my undergraduates, which has put book-buying beyond their reach. Not to mention the problems that London University libraries pose physically to people in wheelchairs.

The study of ancient Greek and Roman authors is an ideal area for a pilot Humanities ‘degree’ course at The Really Open University, because the texts are almost all well out of copyright and available to anyone who can access the Internet (and I do know this will unfortunately not be everyone as long as the Digital Divide persists).

The practicalities: the project would need:
  • A better name than The Really Open University
  • Academics to volunteer a course curriculum or a lecture;
  • A public discussion of the best way to administer admissions (I for one would suggest simply the invention of a machine that measured motivation), the student/teacher interface, and accreditation.
Intellectual culture is far too precious to be left to anti-humanist managers and money men. Any comments and suggestions more than gratefully received.  ¡No PasarĂ¡n! LET'S DISINTERMEDIATE!


  1. Count me in Edith!! I can offer a curriculum focused on people and technology, lectures in this area and research training especially multi-disciplinary. We should also consider creating The Really Open Library where students can access our recent work online. In the present system academics write for free, review and edit publications for free, give the completed work to profit-making publishers who then sell it to our university libraries making huge profits. If we can engage our learned societies to help us create the resource base, we could have something really valuable to offer. BTW, I like The Really Open University in name and in spirit. Do let's disintermediate!!

  2. A lot of US universities do this kind of thing already - might be worth getting in touch? have some Classics courses listed.

    I also saw a ?BBC report towards the end of last year that ?Harvard was to offer some sort of accreditation for students that self-studied using its free materials and then entered its exams.

  3. These people, often scarcely literate, work on behalf of neither students nor teachers but for themselves, thereby extracting large salaries.
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  4. I do wish you every luck with this!!!!
    In Sweden, where I live, tuition at university is still free( if you are a swedish or another EUCitizen that is). I used to come over to Britain and work as a volunteer at archaeological excavations in the late eighties, and how we envied the british students! With the grant sytem they did not have to leave university with big loans, as we swedish students had to do. But know I do not envy british students anymore as they have to cough up with money for both tuition and boarding. What is your governement thinking of? This will mean that only wealthy students dare to take a degree in something so " useless" ( NOT my sentiment-I did classics too at uni) as a education in the humanities. These subjects will loose the bright, but poor students who will opt for something safe. I am not so familiar with british education, perhaps you have seen it already since I believe you have had the system with loans and payment for tuition for quite a while now?
    But here we have a iditotic system where you cannoy choose to make something useful with your time if you become unemployed. If you want to keep the unemployment benefit you are not allowed to study! ( unless you want to take the job centre course in becoming a haidresser or driver. Abosultey respectable jobs off course, but not very intelectual if you want to improve your knowledge.

    But having sounded patronising to the british education system I have to confess that Sweden is a very dark hole when it comes to value art and the humanities. At univerisy these subjects get very small funding compared to nature sience. At my old university, Uppsala, I studied at three separate departments, fairly large for swedish standards,when I studied Egyptology, Archaeology and Classic society. Now they are all merged into one department.....that is the value these subjets had for the univeristy administration! And that administration, well I agree with you!

    But I am happy to have found your blog. I have enjoyed listening to you on the podcasts from " In Our Time". If I had had such an inspiring university teacher as you when I studied Classics, I would not have abandoned it as I sadly did when young and annoyed with teachers that killed my love of ancient Greece and Rome. But listening to you have inspired me so much that I have actually taken to read in the Iliad and Odyssey again, and Herodotos is keeping me company before bedtime!:-) Now I also have the pleasure in going through your blogposts too!
    Thank you so much!
    Kind regards, Charlotta
    PS I am sorry for my english not being up to academic standard. DS