Dazed and Confused After #CETIS10

“Never Waste A Good Crisis”

On Monday and Tuesday I attended the #CETIS10 conference on “Never Waste a Good Crisis – Innovation & Technology in Institutions“. I’ve always enjoyed the CETIS conferences I’ve attended and found that they have provided a valuable way of keeping up with developments in the elearning environment as well as the equally important task of cultivating professional relationships and making new contacts.

But how might I summarise my feelings after two days at the National College for School Leadership, Nottingham, this year’s venue for the conference? If I where to look for a film title to describe how I felt on my journey home if would be “Dazed and Confused”. But not, I should hasten to add, due to any problems with the conference organisation (the venue – which was new to me, was great; the evening meal, this year, had no quirky servings and the organisation was up to its normal high standard).

Rather it was my recollections of the enthusiasm for change which I can recall from many participants and speakers at the first CETIS conferences I attended and the reality of the changes the sector is now facing – changes which were highlighted in three occurrences which took place during the conference – the opening keynote talk; a webinar on “When The Ax Man Cometh” which I heard about shortly before the conference started and the Daily Telegraph’s article on “Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate“ which was published on the second day of the conference.

“Will Universities Still Exist in 2030?”

I recall Oleg Lieber, the recently retired CETIS Director giving an opening talk at a CETIS conference in which he asked the audience to consider whether higher educational institutions as we know them will still exist by 2030. The audience, which consisted of those involved in innovative approaches to elearning, was encouraged to feel they were playing an important role in instigating significant changes within the sector, with an implicit assumption that such changes were for the good and that those who were at the leading edge who we well-positioned to exploit the new opportunities provided in a changed educational landscape.

It now seems that large-scale changes to higher education will arrive well in advance of 2030, but the changes will not be driven primarily by technological development becoming embedded across institutions; rather the changes will come about by changes in funding caused by reductions in funding and increases in student fees. These are the significant changes (which will be implemented in a short period of time), with the changes which technological innovation can provide now having to be contextualised within a radically changed funding environment and corresponding changes in user expectations, with students, for example, looking for the value provided for their fees they have mortgaged their future for.

“DIY University Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education”

My dazed and confused feelings began during the opening plenary talk given by Anya Kamanetz which was based on her recent book on “DIY University Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. As summarised by Christina Smart on the JISC E-Learning Focus blog :

Recent years have seen a drive towards higher participation rates in both the UK and US … but above 40% participation rates problems occur. Issues around massification, cost shifting (where governments push the costs onto students), and student loans are all at play. There is also the influence of Baumol’s disease, where disciplines like the performing arts, are unable to make efficiency savings by reducing teacher to student ratios.

Anya argued that the combination of cost, access and quality made a compelling “case for radical innovation” in higher education. Shifting towards open content, socialisation and accreditation could result in that radical innovation, and Anya expanded on the benefits of Open Educational Resources, Personal Learning Networks and open accreditation approaches. Citing developments like Mozilla drumbeat’s P2PU – School of Webcraft, Anya described how “professional networks can bypass the need for diplomas”. She concluded with the prediction that new business models for HE would emerge, as mp3 players and digital music had transformed the business model of the music industry.

But what is a “case for radical innovation”? How about:

  • We have too many students studying at higher education.
  • Self-motivated students can learn without the need of a formal educational infrastructure.
  • The benefits of technology in enhancing learning are unproven – with Baumol’s cost disease being used “to describe the lack of growth in productivity in public services such as public hospitals and state colleges“.

I met Anya before the start of the conference and, over dinner, Anya mentioned how she has been described as a socialist in the US. But these views are often used from a right-wing perspective – and this caused my initial feelings of discomfort and unease.  I should add that I’m not saying that I’m necessarily disagreeing with such views, which are worthy of further discussion and unpicking. I suspect that, in part, my unease may reflect personal experiences (first in the family, from the working class town of Bootle, to go to University, which provided me with new opportunities) ; political disagreements with the notion that what may be good for self-motivated students (such as those who have benefitted from attendance at fee-paying public schools) will be forced on those who will benefit from learning provided by traditional institutions (whether such learning is mediated by technology or not) and professional concerns regarding the questioning of the benefits of technology (again, I’m not saying that such questions shouldn’t be asked).

In the question time after Anya’s talk I tried to articulate my concerns, but found it difficult to do so. Perhaps I might summarise my feeling by saying “There may be some merits in the issues you have raised and there is a need to gain evidence, in particular to understand the particular circumstances in which such approaches may be beneficial and those in which it can be harmful. But let’s not not take the political decision to radically change higher education based on these types of arguments across the entire sector“. Anya wasn’t of course, suggesting this – but her talk came at a time in which higher education (an, indeed, the broader public sector, is being subjected to large-scale experimentation.

“When The Ax Man Cometh”

Coincidentally after having dinner with Anya and together early arrivals at the CETIS conference on the Sunday night I came across a tweet which informed my that Mark Greenfield, director of web services at University of Buffalo was about to give a live webinar on “When The Ax Man Cometh“. I came across Mark following my post on “When the Axe Man Cometh – The Future of Institutional Web Teams” which discussed the implications of outsourcing of institutional Web teams. Mark used the Ax(e) Man metaphor in his webinar and accompanying blog post – and I should give acknowledgements to Deborah Fearne who described how “The Axe Man Came” and took her job in Web development earlier this year.

The 40 minute video of the webinar is worth watching particularly by those working in institutional Web management teams and those who may have an interest in discussions around out-sourcing.

Some of the notes I write whilst listening to the video:

The topic being addressed: Where will higher ed be in a decade? Will our jobs and departments even exist? And if that axe is coming, how can we survive the cuts? [Note the interview itself starts 6 minutes in].

For-profits can adapt more quickly than HEIs [Is that true? Is that necessarily true? Isn’t the implication that HEIs need to be more adaptable rather than we need to our-source?]

The reality of HE today is that the axe man is coming, especially in IT sector.  There are systemic problems in high education (e.g. costs of tuition fees for students and related issues which Anya raised in her talk). The view that ‘It will be OK when economy recovers’ is wrong.

The axe-man has already started working with examples being given including academic programmes being cut by 30%; outsourcing (in Australia) entire IT departments to India; etc.

The cuts may also be manifested in large-scale increase in services using existing numbers of staff e.g. online learning in one US University is planned to grow by 10 fold, but without any new staff – the work will be outsourced to commercial sector.”

Many courses are the same as they were 100 years ago – but there are new models which can be used: e.g. courses which can be taken anywhere and are no longer constrained to an individual institution

Open learning environment provided by OER resources will help the development of the DIY-University [Hmm, so the JISC OER programme could be used by those with vested interests to undermine the mainstream approaches to the provision of higher education service.]

There’s a need to ask what the core mission of a University is. We can unbundle various University functions. HE is ripe for unbundling. [Note these ideas are taken from A University for the 21st Century by James Duderstadt, President Emeritus at the University of Michigan. In his blog post Mark summarised key points from the book:

    • Higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Universities will have to come to terms with what their true strengths are and how those strengths support their strategies – and then be willing to outsource needed capabilities in areas where they do not have a unique advantage.
    • Universities are under increasing pressure to spin off or sell or close down parts of their traditional operations in the face of new competition. They may well find it necessary to unbundle their many functions, ranging from admissions to counseling to instruction and certification.

Universities aren’t primarily in the IT / Web business- so these functions can be unbundled / out-sourced. You need to justify why it exists at all.

Mark suggested the need for Universities to get “back to basics” [Note this phrase has right-wing connotations in the UK].

Those involved in the provision on institutional Web service need to defend what you do: “You need to be able to justify your existence”.

You should quantify why what you do matters. Decisions may be made just on salary costs of $60,000 pa – average salary cost in US Web team at Buffalo University (but overheads adds to this). Be proactive and not reactive. – e.g. identify costs of bad Web user experiences. Articulate success stories and efficiency gains – e.g. it has been many years since we printed class schedules. Think about the ROI of Web projects. and identify the potential value of a Web project before Web project starts.

Recession has fulled rethinking – but has been bubbling away for 10 years or so. The tipping point will arrive in 4-5 years time: from 2013 college parents will be Generation X and start to question the ROI of sending children to University? Aren’t there better ways of learning cf use of open courseware.

There is a need to follow what’s going on and learn from changes in other sectors- e.g. newspapers which failed to spot the implications of Craiglist on income froclassified adverts.

But such changes can also provide new opportunities, if you accept and embrace change and look for those opportunities.

I feel the issues Mark raised in his webinar (and accompanying blog post). I have made similar points over the years – back in 2006 I gave a talk on “IT Services: Help Or Hindrance?” at the UCISA Management Conference in which I suggested that one possible future for IT Services departments would be “to surrender to the changing environment and leave departments to make use of Web services such as GMail and Yahoo to provide institutional email and groupware facilities“. But back then I was using this as an argument for IT Services department to be more agile and user-focussed rather than making a serious proposal for large-scale out-sourcing – and in any case subsequent arguments that institutions should be exploiting Social Web services have been based on the out-sourcing of the IT components, freeing staff to provide additional services to their users. Loss of an IT infrastructure would, I feel, leave institutions vulnerable, and unable to exploit opportunities which IT can provide to support local requirements. The danger is that today’s cool GMail service (which, admit it, many users prefer to institutional email offerings) will quickly become the slow-moving enterprise service which is frequently criticised today.

I would also add that Mark’s comment that “Those involved in the provision on institutional Web service need to defend what you do: ‘You need to be able to justify your existence’” relate directly to a workshop I ran in Glasgow last Friday on “Institutional Web Services: Evidence for Their Value“. So yes, this is a valid point, which the UK HE sector is addressing.

“Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate”

Whilst the video of Mark Greenfield’s webinar is worth watching and sis useful in stimulating debate, in contrast the Daily Telegraph’s article on “Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate“ was a poorly argued polemic based on flawed use of statistics. I spent 15 minutes over lunch at the CETIS conference pointing out that, yes it’s true “University Web Sites Cost Money!“. I added that the average annual spending on the maintenance of a University Web site is £60,375 (per annum) cited on the article seems very cheap then you consider the wide range of services provided across institutional Web sites “ranging from the important promotional and marketing aspects which are designed to attract new students and research income, disseminate information on the value of the work carried out within institutions to the public as well as support collaborative and communications activities within the institution and will partners across the UK and beyond“.

Other people have made similar comments, with Piero Tintori giving the following response to the Telegraph article:

No one University is spending millions on web development. The average investment is actually very low in comparison with other industries / sectors.


As the web is the number one way of recruiting students and research you could say that the investment is too low. What this article really highlights is that Universities aren’t investing enough on their web presence.

In a blog post Ranjit Sidhu described why he considers the Telegraph article on University website costs and value as unbalanced:

The article in the Telegraph takes one data set; expenditure on website development and places it as a cost on a single value proposition; student experience, without considering to monitise the other important purposes of the university website. We consider this to be unbalanced …

The post went on to provide an objective critique of the underlying methodology used in the Telegraph article.


I don’t normally write such long posts. But I’ve realised that writing this post has helped me to have a better awareness of what I believe and my concerns. I should also add that I am very aware of the political aspects of my comments. I also feel there are differing perspectives between North American and UK views on ownership of IT infrastructure and political considerations. I suspect there will also be generational differences in the UK between those who remember Thatcherite cuts are those whop were too young. And as a number of us discussed in the pub when we were in Nottingham, unlike today’s Government, Margaret Thatcher was lower-middle class and initially had a cabinet of Tory wets.

I also tend not to write such political posts. But this is where I am concerned that the opportunities for new approaches to learning identified by Anya Kamanetz won’t be regarded as ways of providing richer and more diverse ways of supporting learning experiences – rather the ideas of the DIY University will be used as a means of further reducing funding for the sector and disadvantaging those from working class backgrounds. And the arguments surrounding out-sourcing made by Mark Greenfield will similarly be used as a blunt instrument, rather than in exploring optimal ways in which higher educational institutions can adapt to a changing environment, whilst retaining the expertise needed to exploit local opportunities an requirements.

And returning to the CETIS conference and the suggestion that you should “Never Waste a Good Crisis” – I also feel that you should also never waste an opportunity to discuss whether Universities are wasting millions on their Web sites, whether we should be outsourcing our Web and IT infrastructure and whether HEIs can be replaced by the DIY-U. But remember that for some, the answer to these questions will be “Yes” – and not even a “Yes, but no, but yer, but:-(


  1. Brian –

    Great post. I would like to know more about the funding model for higher education in the UK. Based on the little I do know, I think the fiscal challenges in the US are currently more challenging. Charging over $50,000 a year for tuition at private schools is becoming more commonplace, and budget cuts for public schools are dramatic. For example, the budget at my university has been cut by $40 million dollars in the last two years, with more cuts on the way.

    For anyone not familiar with my thoughts on the future of the higher education web profession, here are my blog posts on the subject dating back to 2007:


    I have also been bookmarking applicable articles on delicious:


    I would like to continue to explore this important topic. To help facilitate the conversation, I have created a group on the UWEBD social network called “the future”. I would encourage everyone to join this important conversation.

    • Hi Mark
      Thanks for the reply.
      When I went to University (in the 1970s) there were no fees and I received a grant for the three years at University.
      As described in a Wikipedia entry on Tuition fees:
      Between 1998 and 2006 most British students … paid a contribution towards their tuition fees (anything from £0-£1,250 a year). The amount they paid was based on their or their parents’ income (called means-testing) in the tax year preceding each academic year. The fees were paid up front during each academic year. In addition, students were entitled to a means-tested student loan of up to around £4,000. The loan was separate from the tuition fees and is paid back by the student after they have graduated. It was repaid at the rate of 9% of gross income over £15,000 a year (different limits apply to unearned income and non-residents). The interest rate on loans was changed on 1 September each year and the annual rate was set to the Retail price index increase the previous April (making the loans interest-free in real terms).
      The new top-up fees operate as follows …
      Universities are able to charge students anything from £0 up to a maximum of £3,290 per year.

      The government has recently announced plans to raise fees to $9,000 per year. As described in a recent article in the Guardian:

      The government’s plans to raise tuition fees to £6,000 a year will lead to a dramatic fall in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, new research suggests today.

      An Ipsos Mori poll found that raising the cost of a degree to £5,000 a year would deter almost half of those from the most deprived backgrounds who would otherwise have gone on to higher education, while raising fees to £7,000 would cut the number by nearly two-thirds.

      Note that whilst I agree that students in the US have been expected to pay significant levels of fees, this is not something that many would welcome in the UK (just as we are happy with the funding approaches taken to the provision of health care which you do not have in the US).

      Whether previous approaches are sustainable may be questioned; however the main concern is that the Government is using the current economic crisis as an excuse to implement radical changes without providing the opportunity to consider the implications of such changes. One implication is that people like myself, who have benefitted from being able to afford to attend university, are likely to miss out on such opportunities, thus introducing class barriers into the British society.

  2. Around the future of higher education – I think your “feelings of discomfort and unease” are essential for us all at the moment. We are at a point where we need to deeply question our old categories, if there is going to be a future in education of justice and equal opportunities. This is bound to be uncomfortable – and we don’t know what the best way forward is – but the reverse side is that we’re at of point of enormously fertile opportunity, if we can seize it. I’d really recommend Anya’s “DIY U” book – full of interesting and challenging examples.



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