by Paul Temple
The impact of technological change on the continuation of the university as a physical entity, as it has been known in Europe for the last nine hundred or so years, has regularly come up for debate throughout much of the last century. Every development in communications technology – telephone, radio, TV, computers, email, the internet – has led to confident assertions that the days of the university as then understood were numbered. Why should students bother to turn up at a distant university when the teaching on offer there could be delivered readily and cheaply using the new technology of the day? (On the other hand, the transformative communications technologies of the nineteenth century – the railway and the steamship – were turned to advantage by the new University of London when it created its distance-learning operation in 1865.)
A favourite work of mine in this declinist genre is John Daniel’s Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (1998), where the then-VC of the UK’s Open University confidently predicts that the growth of university student numbers in countries such as China and India will mean that only “mega” virtual universities will be able to cope with national demands. Even the Chinese, Daniel then argued, would not be able to expand physical university capacity at the rate required: to which one can now respond, “Oh yes they could”.
The pandemic lockdown in the UK, which has completely closed university campuses for (at the time of writing) about six months has shown what can be done in terms of online teaching when there’s no alternative. All the university teachers I know have become overnight experts on the use of Zoom and Teams for both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, for doctoral examinations, and more: exactly the direction in which Daniel thought higher education should move. But I haven’t heard any calls for this to continue indefinitely, and for campuses to be mothballed. My friend Jane, who teaches a large, mainly Chinese, postgraduate group at UCL, tells me that her students say that they would find online learning less appealing if they did not already know their peers and teachers from previous time working on the campus. Without this prior group-building to give the basis for informal peer support, Jane thinks that her learners could easily become isolated and would struggle. Everyone, especially it seems, students, wants to get back to the physical university.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise. I have previously (Temple, 2018) noted the complex relationships between academic work and the physical environments within which it takes place. Just as the current lockdown has led people in all kinds of jobs to re-evaluate their work environments, so the temporary campus closures should have prompted thinking about how university built environments contribute to their outputs. The relationships between people and the built environments in which they live and work is an under-remarked factor in all manner of social and economic activities: Richard Sennett, for example, has over many years investigated these relationships in different settings, most recently in his book Building and Dwelling (2018). The idea that an activity as complex and deeply personal as higher learning can be completely divorced from its physical context seems improbable: Sennett analyses this complexity by using the term cité to represent ideas of belonging and consciousness, and ville to indicate physicality, the dynamics of space, and how elements of the built environment fit together. We might think of online teaching during the lockdown as taking the cité out of the ville: it might work initially, but eventually the ville infrastructure starts to be missed. Although Jane’s students liked the increased availability of recorded material, even live online interactive sessions were not for them adequate substitutes for a seminar room discussion. Other aspects of the physical university will be missing too: studies have shown how students value a working environment shared with other students – a library or study centre – even when they are personally unknown to one another. The enormous popularity of UCL’s new 1100 seat student study centre, in use (pre-Covid) around the clock, is a good example of what Nørgård and Bengtsen have called “the placeful university” (2016) – their way of thinking about the interactions between people and places.
The Covid-19 lockdown has given us a stress-test of university teaching without the campus. Teachers and students have worked hard to make it a success, usually helped – as with Jane’s students – by being part of a learning community with a pre-lockdown history. We need in future to give the ville aspects of university life the credit they deserve.
SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546
Daniel, J (1998) Mega-universities and knowledge media: technology strategies for higher education London: Kogan Page
Nørgård, R and Bengtsen, S (2016) ‘Academic citizenship beyond the campus: a call for the placeful university’. Higher Education Research and Development, 35 (1): 4-16
Sennett, R (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City London: Allen Lane
Temple, P (2018) ‘Space, place and institutional effectiveness in higher education’ Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2 (2): 133-150