It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Last week, the BBC reported on how ‘complacent’ British universities that fail to respond to the rise of online universities will be swept away by global competition.  Even Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia agreed – see Jimmy Wales.  I have to agree that the BBC, Wales and REM were right:  “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”.

Why so?  I worked for the Open University Business School for 18 years on their MBA programmes and certainly would not be where I am today without the superb learning that I gained from taking and teaching their programmes over an extended period.  I am eternally grateful to people such as David Mayle, John Martin, Norman Maxfield, Don Cooper and Jane Henry – modern day geniuses in their field.

However, despite my love of the institution, I must say that the university has been slow to respond to the changing expectations of the current generation of students.  From the white heat of technology in the 1960’s The Open University and many other traditional universities have turned into slow followers of change in the education sector.  I wish I could say otherwise.  Sir Michael Barber agreed: “There are too many universities doing the same thing.”  There are already big US networks of universities offering courses to students anywhere in the world, with two consortiums having already signed up almost four million students.

For my part, I was approached by Californian Online Learning Provider Udemy, who asked me to develop an MBA level online learning programme on Leadership, Strategy, Creativity, Innovation and Change.  The programme, entitled “The Music of Business” offers a contrast to traditional university courses:

  • The programme can be taken at the learner’s pace and their own time, as it is available for life, during which time it continues to be updated.
  • MBA level learning at non-MBA prices.
  • For individuals, the programme is available for direct purchase at $169.
  • Individuals can also join an affiliate scheme to gain an income from referrals.
  • For companies, the programme can be customised, licensed, branded and embedded on corporate online learning platforms.

Take a look at the syllabus:

Will Universities go the way of HMV?  The early warning signs are there.  Post your thoughts on the likely fate of our Universities here.   p.s. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the post, but I enjoyed the REM track so much that I thought it was time to post another one:


20 responses to “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

  1. Could be Universities go same way as HMV? It is hard to se how the change in the needs of employers to see proof of learning will change, and they (Gen X types) will be more attuned to the solidly old fashioned? So the death may be slower, but it does feel inexorable. Many uni’s are selling on-line e learning packages now – to other universities, to allow them to create blended learning packages. Maybe that is an easy way forward for the old style institutions?


  2. Hi Peter,

    As an ex OUBS trainer and critical reader I have to agree with you. Unfortunately it seems that the ‘modern’ approach of the OUBS is to go online and make it more complicated. At the same time they have reduced the personal contact hours and removed local non-UK trainers; both of which are essential to compete with other universities, particularly for non-UK students.

    Like all learning opportunities, it is important to grasp the new technological innovations without throwing the proverbial ‘baby out of the bathwater’. The USPs of the OUBS were ‘supported’ distance learning with the most up to date and world leading materials. Sadly both have gone awry in the current approach.

    The following lyrics come to mind…”
    Nowhere Man, please listen
    You don’t know what you’re missing
    Nowhere Man, the world is at your command

    He’s as blind as he can be
    Just sees what he wants to see
    Nowhere Man can you see me at all?”

    It’s never too late to ‘turnaround’ things when management starts to listen to customers.



  3. Hi Peter
    You are much closer to Uni World than me so It’s difficult to contest. For my part I was very happy with what the OU MBA gave me. I believe Unis in gen provide an excellent service. From a business perspective, one area where they may fall short is in preparing people for entrepreneuring, as distinct from management and employment.
    The Business InQbator Ltd


  4. Hi from Canada, Peter. Although I cannot speak for the UK, here in Canada many universities and colleges are jumping into the online space.

    It would seem, to me, that the largest impediment for outfits like Udemy and others is a guaranteed level of quality (with the greatest respect to your offering, of course!). While it is one thing for any of these online providers to say they offer ‘MBA level’ courses and programs, what is the established criteria in measuring same, the proven level of instructor qualifications, and so forth that give back up credibility to the marketing messaging?

    The second problem, for people taking the courses in aid of a degree, is that with the nascent non-regulated program providers, they don’t get the letters after the name. All of this drives a certain amount of traffic to the formal university programs…even their offerings do not end up offering degrees. As an employer for more than a few decades in various entrepreneurial enterprises, I know that I instinctively give more cred to a resume with “University of” attached, even for a non-degreed online program, than I do for one that might have precisely the same type of learning, but come from, say, Udemy.

    The sad fact is that none of this has, generally, anything to do with the actual quality of the learning, nor the qualities of the instructor, nor the uptake of the student. But it will take some time, and some regulation, to turn the ship around, education being a large, reasonably intransigent, yet government-directed and financed institution.

    Which is why I dropped out of Uni many decades ago, and went into business! (Yet, remained a life-long learner…hence the true benefits of online offerings.)


  5. The OU saved me from my own dislike of traditional education routes and has been a leader of what were non-traditional teaching and learning styles for over 40 years. Those newer e-institutions offering non-traditional programmes owe their innovation to the OU, which continues to develop its once revolutionary unitised approach to learning and development, a process that ILM and other awarding bodies have only comparatively recently taken further down the line.


  6. I think your comments may well apply to the OU, but not to conventional universities – for most undergraduates it is the experience/opportunity to grow up that is as importance as the information imparted, and for postgrads/researchers it’s a whole different ball game. So I don’t see there being an impact on traditional universities as much as OU/night classes and the like.


    • In the past I would have not hesitated in agreeing with you on this Brian. I guess that with increased cost of universities in countries that are not used to such a high price the potential students will look for alternative approaches. This may be going straight into employment and then later accessing the e-learning world on a needs basis.

      Whatever happens, it will be important for the employers to re-think their expectations regarding experience and qualifications in non-technical skill areas, I suggest.

      I live in Austria and like many central European countries the piece of paper with the university name on it is often more important than experience. This may not stand the test of time if the current trends re e-learning continue.

      It may have been a long time ago that Bob Dylan wrote this and yet, I guess it is still relevant.
      Come mothers and fathers
      Throughout the land
      And don’t criticize
      What you can’t understand
      Your sons and your daughters
      Are beyond your command
      Your old road is
      Rapidly agin’
      Please get out of the new one
      If you can’t lend your hand
      For the times they are a-changin’.




  7. when I went to uni in 1984, it was to do european business, and it’s a subject that could be done online today for sure.
    However, there are 2 points I feel –
    1. Last year I tried to get onto an acting degree course. I didn’t get on (shocking Shakespeare audition!), but acting is not something that can be taught through a screen.
    2. Leading on from that, part of going to university is the life learning aspect, young 18 year olds, often leaving home, finding new friends and experiences, whether they enjoy them or not! ( I didn’t!)

    I think these 2 points will see an ongoing need for physical universities?


      • someone mentioned to me once the difference between knowledge and experience, and I guess in creative fields, you have to learn through real experience over and above ‘just’ knowledge?


    • Gordon,
      This has always been a dilemma for students and universities. How to bridge the need for theory and practice. Acting is one example and yet chemistry, physics, biology, psychiatry and so on all require ‘real time’ live activities to learn.

      I am a visiting lecturer at some universities in central Europe and when I first started I had all sorts of problems – I was not there to teach – and the old style professors could not cope with this. I saw my role to facilitate the ‘learning’ part by providing appropriate reading and referencing for the students to do themselves – I cannot read it for them.

      What I can provide is the environment and experience of ‘doing’ what they have read about and applying the theory into real life situations. Be it change management, entrepreneurship, marketing etc.

      So, I see a role for e-learning alongside the practical application of the cognitive learning. This balance is crucial and has yet to stabalise as we all learn how to cope with the numerous ways of providing education.

      I find the whole situation exciting and am pleased to be one of the pathfinders looking for ways to harness the soft and hard skills of life.

      Thought of the day:
      If e-learning platforms are providing independent routes to theory and other intellectual writing, what about entrepreneurial ‘facilitators’ running independent practical opportunities for the ‘learners’ to put this into action? Then tie these together as a qualification that actually means something for employers. Gordon’s second point is not lost here and the ‘new way’ might actually help the ‘learners’ to form networks that they value.

      As the great Pink Floyd might say in their music:
      “Someone sent the promised land
      And I grabbed it with both hands
      Now I’m the man on the inside looking out”



  8. Reg, I like it.
    You make a great point that ties in with what I said about the creative fields, and this is very much where universities could go. In fact when I was visiting the acting school, they took us to first year classes and discussed the 3 year plan, and I could tell immediately that there was a massive amount of fluff and filler, almost to pad out the 3 years.
    That’s something that is bypassed with online learning, and something that goes against the old school model,


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