This proposal started from an observation I made on Twitter about the A-level results ‘scandal’: the fact many working-class and underprivileged students are finding themselves turned away from institutions that were their first choice because their grades – being from state schools – were algorithmically predicted in ways that made it less likely they will have sufficient scores for elite universities.
For many students (and their parents), this is an obvious disappointment – among other reasons, because inferring actual scores from previous grades is both imprecise and unfair. For many of my colleagues in higher education, it was yet another sign of the classism of British HE, which, predictably and consistently, privileges those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Both are true, but both avoid engaging with the potentially bigger problem that awaits.
The bigger problem, in this case, is that a large number of angry, disappointed young people, stuck either at home behind the screens, or in shit jobs, during a pandemic and a recession, is a recipe for breeding hate and resentment. My guess is that alt-right recruiters are on it as we speak – indeed, have been on it for a while now. The Left has been atrociously slow and on the back foot ever since the December election; we need to step up.
Thus, this proposal is brief and necessarily rather general; I do try to address two biggest pitfalls (credentials and funding) but other than that, if people want to try this, details can be worked out as we go along.
The point is not to create a perfect institution that would at the same time solve the problem of social inequality in Britain, neoliberalism and precarity in higher education, and the rise of the far right; no policy can do that anyway. The idea is to move, start doing something now, and then adjust if necessary – or just give up.
What is Online University of the Left?
Simply, it would be a platform offering enrolment/attendance in a number of courses, which could take the form of a ‘foundation year’ degree that some students enrol in before starting ‘official’ uni. My proposal on Twitter was some combination of liberal arts and practical skills, but that’s mostly because my own background is in social sciences and humanities, and I’ve found that most students, if left to their own devices, tend to choose something along these lines (this is much more evident in the US, where students are encouraged and often required to acquire at least some ‘credits’ from a field other than their own, so it’s not uncommon to encounter e.g. biologists taking social science credits in sociology, or poetry students taking science credits in astronomy).
In all cases, it could be something that many of us know and would like to teach, and that we also believe would be useful for young people’s future lives, employment, and study: how about a course in British history, but the kind that actually engages with colonialism and slavery? How about a course in social and political thought that includes thinkers that are not White men? How about a course in basic statistics, so that even students who are very far from A-level maths could potentially understand figures like R? How about introductory economics, so next time students go to the voting booth they know what ‘GDP’ actually stands for?
In addition to this, we could offer talks (or online chat sessions!) on really practical skills: for instance, how to write a CV? How to search for literature? How to conduct interviews? Etc.
As I had mentioned, Tom Sperlinger, Richard Pettigrew, and Josie McLelland of the University of Bristol ran something not too far off from this (obviously, before the pandemic), and wrote about it in their book ‘Who Are Universities For?’. There are many other places and experiences we can learn from.
So who teaches at this university?
The best part is, no-one needs to do much. All you need to do is think up a topic/course, propose a lecture, and coordinate with a few people who’d like to do something similar. Students could literally pick & choose topics, creating their own courses. If you want to run a series of lectures by yourself, even better, but odds are that we’ll all find out there are many people out there we’d love to develop courses with, given the opportunity. One way in which universities monopolize their staff’s labour is by making sure we cannot collaborate in this way across institutional boundaries; here’s a way to change that.
But who does all the work of preparation and delivery?
Odds are, we are all teaching online at least this term, right? Even if you’re super-strapped for time and cognitive space, nothing prevents you from making one of your lectures available outside your uni’s platform. Clearly I can’t get into more details, but let’s say that even if your recording software is proprietary and the platform is as well, you can always do a slightly different version of the slides and record yourself on your mobile phone. As far as the literature/reading lists are concerned, while it is true that students with access to libraries are enormously privileged in this respect, there are plenty of websites that often this kind of literature for free. Most of us are not able to use them or direct our students to them in our uni teaching, but nothing prevents students from discovering them, um, anyway.
Assuming you do have some time and extra cognitive space, you could use this chance to develop your dream introductory course to… anything, and make it available online, and for free, for ever. For instance, I always say I wished my students had a better understanding of the basic philosophy of science (as in, what is a hypothesis, what is proof, what is an observation, what is the difference between causation and correlation, etc.). Their background, in most cases, provides none; yet this makes most arguments in social theory more difficult to get across, and turns methods teaching into a nightmare. So, I’d be thrilled for an opportunity to develop a series of talks on this.
But who puts this online?
There are a number of free platforms for this type of content that can be used; Pat Lockley, who is one of most talented (and experienced!) developers I know, has already offered to help. I am sure I know many learning technologists who would. This isn’t about running a super-complicated multi-sited real-time collaborative simulation of secrets of the universe; it’s basically a series of Ted talks with some links to further reading.
Where does the money come in?
Here’s another part of the proposal. Imagine parents were saving, taking out loans etc. for their children to go to college. Odds are, they are saving some of this money anyway, because due to the pandemic children are probably staying at home. So if they would be willing to pay some of that – really, a tiny portion of what they would be giving towards tuition and living costs anyway – it could pay precarious colleagues who would be teachers, teaching assistants or supervisors, offering one-to-one or small group online tuition to students.
Private tuition, I hear, is anyway a massive business, and also one of the reasons why students with rich parents tend to get better grades and score better at admissions. So this would be an opportunity for more students to access this kind of supervision, thus also – and this is an argument for parents, primarily – increasing their future academic success and employment skills. This isn’t, clearly, to condone this system – it’s awful – nor is it to ignore the fact that graduate students and other precarious colleagues are getting massively shafted over in the current pandemic. This isn’t a way to solve this problem; it is a way to offer a stopgap/livelihood to those who were counting on income from supervisions and are not getting it this year.
It goes without saying that those of us who are permanently employed would need to be teaching for free; if you have a problem with volunteering your labour (I don’t), think of it as an opportunity for public engagement and impact. For those who would be getting paid, there would be fiscal/economic elements to figure out, obviously (tax? insurance?), but I’m guessing something like a flat-rate per hour + centralized payment platform (Patreon?) could work. Anyway, I’m sure people will have ideas about this.
So this is basically a mini-MOOC?
Nope. See above for supervisions – this isn’t just a series of Youtube clips you can watch in your spare time. Also, it’s not run by a single institution (like Harvard or Stanford), which means that prestige does not accrue to a university.
But what about credits? Why would anyone want to attend this?
This is the tricky bit, of course – in the current situation most students wouldn’t want to waste their time (and parents their money) on something that is not recognized as a degree or at least as counting towards a degree. The first is a long and formal process, so there’s certainly no way to do the accreditation now; the second, however, is not impossible. A little policy excursion below.
Most education systems have something along the lines of ‘recognition of prior experience’. (Imagine you were a self-taught violinist who’s played in a local band for 20 years, but never had any formal qualification, and that you wanted for whichever reason to get a degree in composition: this is the route you would take). You would submit evidence of experience relevant to the topic of your studies, and odds are, it would get recognized. So while it would be overtly optimistic to claim the Online University of the Left would count as a formal degree, it could, certainly, be recognized as other qualification or training.
Wouldn’t students rather go to any university – even not their first, second, or third choice – that offers them a formal degree, rather than watch online lectures?
On the one hand, probably, and that’s a great thing – it might save many non-elite institutions from premature closures (and their employees from redundancy!), not to mention (hopefully) disrupt the perception that not getting into Oxford, Cambridge or the LSE means you (or your future degree) are worthless (this, in itself, is a terrible perception, but again unfortunately one very resistant to change). On the other, regardless of where students choose to enrol ‘formally’, post-clearing, nothing prevents them from attending a few ‘extra’ courses online – and taught by academics from all, including ‘elite’ institutions, for free! Imagine that.
So again, sadly, while this would not in itself ‘disrupt’ the hallowed place Oxford and Cambridge hold in the national imagination, it would (1) give students access to (hopefully) high quality teaching (for free) and high quality supervision (for a small fee) (2) create income for precariously employed colleagues (3) teach us to collaborate across institutional boundaries (4) get us thinking about how to organize and own our labour in ways that do something other than generate profit for our employers.
Oh, also, Online University of the Left is a bit lame; let’s call it the National Higher Education Service. 🙂
Jana Bacevic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Durham. Her work is in sociology of knowledge, epistemology and social theory, and political sociology. She tweets at @jana_bacevic