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The Future of Universities: Three questions for Toni Pearce

2013/14 NUS President, Toni Pearce

Published in June 2013

What’s next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it’s become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here, former President of the National Union of Students, Toni Pearce, speaks to Alex Miles.

Toni Pearce

Humbled and excited: Toni Pearce at NUS Conference 2013. Her first tweet as President-elect read "Incredibly humbled and excited to have been elected the next @nusuk national president. Thank you! #nusnc13."

Alex Miles: Will MOOCs (massive open online courses) transform student representation for the better or for the worse?

Toni Pearce: It’s a complicated issue. I think it’ll be a challenge for all student organisations, including the NUS – as we’ll have to start making more of our activities online. That’s about saying, actually, what do these people want – do these people want formal debates, do they want nights out, do they want a masculine model of democracy, where you stand up and have 'for' and 'against' arguments or do they want forums and discussions online? Do they just want somewhere where they can raise issues with the academic quality on their course? If you’re a mature student who’s studying in the evenings then you probably don’t want the wine and cheese evening that’s traditionally laid on for you but you might just want somebody who will campaign for child-care on your campus, and I think that’s the really important thing: identifying things that our students need and delivering on those.

AM: And if your student population is scattered around the globe and watching online, how do you ensure that quality and student rights are maintained? Indeed, how would you (completely hypothetically) ensure that the sense of community and student solidarity is maintained, despite the disparate nature of that education model?

TP: I think that we have to be really clear that solidarity doesn’t just mean solidarity when something goes wrong. It doesn’t just mean protests or occupations or placards - and all of those things are absolutely key to lots of the student movements, to activism – but it can be about so much more than that. We have the technology and the capability now to engage with thousands of students online and, actually, if we put our minds to it, could absolutely engage with them and create a sense of community and make sure that those people feel engaged. It’s not like we have only one student studying in Dubai, for instance, where students' unions are outlawed; we have to look at how we work around that model because, when they’re enrolled with institutions in the UK, it’s really important that they have the same rights to access student voice structures and democratic structures as our students studying within the UK have. That’s a really difficult one to navigate. Maybe that’s about bringing those students together on their campuses internationally, maybe it’s about creating students’ unions internationally that aren’t just based on institutions but are based purely on the nature of being a student, so being able to organise between institutions rather than just within your own institution. I think that will be really important in the future.

AM: And so, would you create a students' union for each online course provider?

TP: I suppose the example that I’d use is the way that we’ve begun to set up the National Society of Apprentices in the UK. Usually our constituent members are students' unions of each institution, but what we’ve actually done (because apprentices are so spread out in the UK, and you could have maybe one studying with one private training provider) is given them the opportunity to have individual membership to something called the National Society of Apprentices which is, in itself, affiliated to NUS, so they can have a democratic voice through that structure. And I suppose that’s how we might think about doing it internationally. I know that there’s obviously a lot of thought that would need to go into that but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a better link between the students' union movement and the trade union movement because a lot of people who are studying online or are studying part-time are doing so because their own life commitments prevent them from being full-time (possibly because they’re working full-time). Making sure that we have a much stronger commitment between the trade union movement and the students' union movement will allow them to work together and ensure that those people who are working have the opportunity to access, not just education but also quality education.

AM: If the G8 Summit of World Leaders were to make one commitment to HE, what would you like that commitment to be?

TP: I think that it’s impossible, and perhaps unhelpful, to single out higher education as something that you can change within itself because it’s so subject to the changes in society around it, and not just within the UK but internationally. If I wanted Bono to campaign on one issue that would have an impact on the higher education system, and a positive impact on students in higher education, it would be to change the whole way that our higher education system works, and the way that it allows students from different backgrounds and different classes to access all types of education, (whether that’s young people from the poorest backgrounds accessing the most prestigious higher education institutions or people from the most privileged backgrounds accessing some kind of more vocational opportunities) but also making sure that that’s freely available throughout the world.

Some of the issues coming up, particularly around the Scottish independence referendum, really give us a glimpse into the future of how students will be prevented from moving around, not just around the EU but nationally, and actually I think that’s really important as we move into a much more technological age. I think it’s only right that more information is shared freely throughout the world because our education system should be about just that - educating people and not about the marketization of knowledge and information. I think that’s a really big concern for me, the fact that you wouldn’t be able to freely access knowledge, and I think with the opportunities that are given to us through technology, the internet and even MOOCs, I think people should have absolutely the opportunity to access knowledge and information freely. That’s one of the really exciting things that the Open University does. So I suppose that it’s very difficult to ask one thing from Bono, but I suppose it would be a massive overhaul of the whole of the university system in the UK.


For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.

Image c/o the National Union of Students.