Are brick-and-mortar Universities still relevant?

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It was recently announced that Lancaster University would be one of 11 universities across the country cooperating with the Open University on the new FutureLearn program. This new platform will offer higher education courses on a variety of subjects to the public, without formal entry requirements, determined by partner universities and organised by the Open University. The course content and method of examination is to be determined by the partner universities.

The unveiling of FutureLearn brings an interesting question – to what extent are brick-and-mortar universities still relevant in the modern day, in which we can receive learning materials and participate in lectures from the comfort of our own homes? Indeed, the Open University has cornered the distance learning market in the UK, but through FutureLearn these brick-and-mortar universities are making their first steps into the marketplace.  Even brick-and-mortar universities themselves are embracing aspects of electronic learning, with learning materials being easily accessible from virtual learning environments such as Moodle and the previously-used LUVLE. Higher education institutions are becoming more fluid, with less emphasis on the location and more on the interaction between students and lecturers that you find within.

With skyrocketing tuition fees, the Open University has seen its number of students increase by a large number. Students see value for money in its tuition system, in which they do not have to make daily commitments or move to another part of the country in order to study, and can instead fit their student life around their existing commitments, working full-time jobs at the same time as studying. This model of student life is slowly being embraced, as it allows one to build up work experience at the same time as academic study.

It is only natural, therefore, that Lancaster will want to attempt to move into this growing market. But what will this mean for the students currently studying at Lancaster? It is unlikely that the FutureLearn platform will be running full degree courses, and therefore it shouldn’t be running entirely in competition to the higher education services currently offered by the university. It is too early to tell exactly what courses will be offered, but the details will soon be announced. The only indication that we have about course content are the remarks of Simon Nelson, Chief Executive of Futurelearn, who emphasised that the courses will be “high-quality student experiences”. However, the exact accreditation that the courses will provide is yet to be revealed. They could simply be diploma-style courses, additional experience to add to a CV, or perhaps will be more in-depth courses.

There is also the issue that the new FutureLearn courses will have no formal entry requirements. With Lancaster’s position as a top 10 university, it could be said that FutureLearn removes a certain degree of exclusivity that Lancaster has managed to develop in the past few years. However, this is also an example of the democratisation, and helps to reaffirm Lancaster’s commitment to education, something that has been thrown into doubt in the past few years as a market mentality in Lancaster has seemed to take hold.

I am tentatively excited about the prospects of FutureLearn. Having a degree of understanding in the methods of both Lancaster University and the OU, I feel that the platform has a lot to bring to the UK, and will provide much needed online higher education in a market primarily dominated by the Open University. Electronic learning is now maturing into a force to be reckoned with in the UK, and it is right that Lancaster should attempt to

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