We need a revolution in university teaching – and online-only lectures could start it | Simon Jenkins

The idea has met with uproar from Manchester students, but if it results in more teaching hours, all the better

Lectures are rubbish education. They should have gone out when printing was invented and students learned to read. The vanity of monks and preachers kept them going and set them up for university education ever since. Lectures have nothing to do with teaching, which is an interactive process. They are academic showbusiness.

Yet 3,000 Manchester University students have signed a petition to save their lectures after the pandemic and stop them going online under what is called “blended learning”. They seemingly prefer to have to attend a draughty lecture hall at a fixed time and snooze through a ritual hour of note-taking, as if attending high mass. They are sceptical of the university’s statement that a new “online default model of teaching” will not diminish their “contact time”, even if it offers the comfort and convenience of tuning in to lectures wherever and whenever they choose.

For universities, lectures have always been cheap and easy, and now they have become more so. The pandemic has shown what anyone could have told them: that online saves room space and, horror of horrors, allows lecture quality to be monitored. The London School of Economics – like apparently 80% of universities that have lecture recording technology – has become a virtual video production company. Lecturers can in theory record their pearls of wisdom in a few days, shove them online and answer any student questions on Zoom. Research into “lecture capture” – that is recording and transmission – shows that it benefits all concerned.

If lectures are the real university, there is no point in students sitting in expensive residential towers when they could be studying at home – or even in gainful part-time employment. As content, a lecture is no different from an article or a book. Give or take issues of copyright, it could be disseminated nationally so students everywhere could listen. How many new lectures each week does Britain really need on Shakespeare’s sonnets or the history of the Victorian railway? The waste of academic resources must be huge.

What the Manchester students really want – and have sorely missed during the pandemic – is not the lecture, but proximity to a live academic. They want classes, seminars, debates, tutorials and conversation with teachers and like-minded students. Having benefited from a tutorial education myself, I find the idea of a university without such regular human interaction not unthinkable but immeasurably less rich.

Students in England have paid up to £9,250 a year for a collegiate experience. It is what most science and medicine students get in their practical work. Yet a lecturer friend says he reckons to spend less than two days a week for barely a third of each year actually in the presence of students. The rest of the time he is working “to government orders” on examinations, bureaucracy and desperately, aimlessly quantifiable research.

In his 2016 book The University of Oxford: A History, Laurence Brockliss predicted that British universities faced “an uncomfortable future”. It was “only a matter of time before virtual learning makes inroads into higher education” and transforms its structure. Residential universities, vastly expensive in national terms, would be seen as a luxury. All universities should in some sense be “open”, their teaching no longer exclusive and their distinctive qualities lying in their socialisation, particularly in student and teacher interaction.

Great institutions traditionally need traumas – wars or pandemics – to force them to change. To those who went to university before the digital revolution, it is astonishing how little the upheaval in information retrieval and communication has altered academic methodology: the term, the lecture, the essay, the exam, the gown, the “degree”. It seems absurd for a course to still need to be spread over three seven-month years, to allow for the harvest and church festivals. To watch a university react to a changing world is like watching the medieval papacy react to Luther’s Reformation – with horror and antagonism.

The live lecture may be dead, and if it means more teaching, all to the good. But as long as the money flows, these places will never change.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist


Simon Jenkins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
At last, the UK has a black studies university course. It’s long overdue | Kehinde Andrews
Until now, academic staff and interests have remained overwhelmingly white. Our course will change not only the face, but the nature, of university education

Kehinde Andrews

20, May, 2016 @1:07 PM

Article image
Are university lectures doomed?
Founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales has suggested that online courses herald the end of traditional lectures. Philip Hensher and John Mullan discuss the issue

Philip Hensher and John Mullan

05, May, 2013 @8:00 AM

Article image
Universities are broke. So let’s cut the pointless admin and get back to teaching | André Spicer
The meaningless tasks and faux-business strategies prioritised by British universities have skewed their real role, writes André Spicer

André Spicer

21, Aug, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Universities don’t need a regulatory big stick to drive better teaching
Institutions that score well on the Teaching Excellence Framework will be allowed to raise tuition fees – but will the TEF really intensify progress?

Jonathan Wolff

20, Oct, 2015 @11:00 AM

Article image
Should university lectures be compulsory?

Many medical students already have compulsory lectures, but should all university departments track student attendance?

Joshua Feldman

14, Mar, 2013 @12:29 PM

Article image
Have big university lectures gone out of fashion?

No longer can students sit passively and imbibe information – today's 'blended learning' approach demands engagement and ideas

Louise Tickle

08, Apr, 2014 @10:06 AM

Article image
Is there still time to save the Open University from slow strangulation? | Steven Rose
Plans to cut staff and courses threaten the OU’s specific mission of making tertiary education open to all, writes Steven Rose, emeritus professor of neuroscience

Steven Rose

23, Mar, 2018 @2:25 PM

Article image
Ten reasons we should ditch university lectures

Students have just one chance to hear a lecture - and mostly it's just someone reading their notes aloud

Donald Clark

15, May, 2014 @8:59 AM

Article image
This higher education bill forces market dogma on our universities | Malia Bouattia
Proposals to judge teaching quality by graduate earnings are a convenient way to ignore the causes of rising debt, falling salaries and the widening income gap

Malia Bouattia

08, Aug, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Britain's universities are on the verge of unravelling | Glen O'Hara
The complexity of organising teaching and timetables in the context of Covid-19 will push the sector to the brink, says professor of history Glen O’Hara

Glen O’Hara

07, Jul, 2020 @9:32 AM