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The Virtual University is (paradoxically) the University Made Concrete

James Cornford

(Draft paper prepared for the joint Annenberg and iCS conference on New Media and Higher Education, University of Southern California, October 27-30)



The notion of a "virtual university" is a potent vision of the future of higher education. This virtual university – a "university without walls" – is seen as an institution that has torn itself free from the geographical confines of the campus, using the new communications technologies to connect learners, potential learners, teachers, researchers, alumni, employers, research funders and administrators in flexible ever-changing network organisation. This vision has captured the imaginations of academics, university managers, educational policy-makers, corporate personnel and training managers and private entrepreneurs across the world. Steps towards the creation of the virtual universities are underway in existing institutions, while a wide range of new institutions, many based on new networks of existing organisations, are being set up.

But before we rush to embrace the virtual university, and all the novelty that it brings, perhaps we should look too at the wider implications of virtuality in higher education, at what the move towards a virtual future means for higher education institutions, their structure and identity. As Phil Agre (1999: no page no.) has pointed out, ‘information and communications technologies create incentives to standardize the world’ (ibid.). What I want to do here is to build on this observation and argue that it is increasingly clear is the that pursuit of the virtual university is having a major, perhaps paradoxical, impact on the institutional form and sense of identity of the university as it has developed in the twentieth century. Specifically, the application of the new technologies is generating a myriad of demands for re-institutionalisation of the university as a far more ‘corporate’, one might even say concrete, kind of organisation.

The virtual and the university

What is the virtual university? How can we pin down this loose term? Cunningham et al (1998) usefully provide a range of future ‘new media’-enabled scenarios for higher education. They describe the virtual university as follows:

Picture a future in which students never meet a lecturer face to face in a class room, never physically visit the on-campus library; in fact, never set foot on the campus or into an institutional lecture-room or learning centre. Such is the future proposed by the virtual university scenario (1998: 179)

What marks out the virtual university in this scenario is decomposition of the university as a particular place and its recomposition as a set of wholly mediatised relationships, tied together by information and communications technologies. As the findings of Cunningham and his collaborators suggest, few believe that this totalizing vision of a ‘university without walls’ is currently achievable. Perhaps fewer believe that it is desirable. We are not without any number of critiques of this vision of the virtual university. Newman and Johnson, for example, identify this vision as being based on a ‘nave sociology’ which ‘ignores the role of apprenticeship and implicit craft knowledge in the generation of technical progress and scientific discovery’ (Newman and Johnson 1999: 80) and the role of face-to-face interaction and group socialisation. David Noble (1998) has likened the rush to embrace the virtual university to the discredited extension colleges of the 1930-50s, identifying this model as the ‘digital diploma mill’, a commodified travesty of public higher education driven by corporate greed and the self interest of administrators (cf. Readings, 1996). Langdon Winner (1998), pours ridicule on the whole process within his hilarious Automatic Professor Machine.

For us, the notion of the virtual university is useful, not as a description of a particular type of institution, but rather as a description of a process or project which is being implemented, in different ways and with different intensity in existing universities, as well as in new institutions. Much of the excitement, exhilaration and fear (see e.g., Marchese, 1998) concerns the establishment of new institutions – greenfield sites – with US for-profit institutions such as the Unviersity of Phoenix and the DeVry University as the classical exemplars. The bulk of the work of building information and communications technologies into higher education, however, is taking place in existing and established institutions – what, by contrast, we may regard as brownfield sites. In the jargon of industrial economists, it is ‘in situ restructuring’. Cunningham et al. (1998), for example, found little interest among media and computing companies in establishing wholly new commercial higher education service provision, virtually all preferring to work with established universities (as suppliers or partners). The building the virtual university is, then predominantly taking place within, and on the edge of, the well established institutional context of established universities, albeit with close co-operation with technology vendors. From our point of view, it is also important to see this project as extending across the whole of the university: the virtual university is not just a matter of ‘distance’ or ‘flexible’ teaching and learning systems but extends into administration (finance, personnel, purchasing; estates, etc.), student recruitment and alumni management, research networks, library systems and so on.

The context of our research, then, has been the British University system. British universities are changing. They are having to react to rapidly changing national and international environment (Newby, 1998; Schuller, 1995). Expansion in the 1990s has increased the number of students studying at Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) by some 40% in a decade. While student numbers have increased dramatically, increased resources have been much more modest leading to a declining per capita resource. The recent introduction of tuition fees for undergraduate student of up to 1,000 per year has made the financial relationship between the university and the student far more direct. Further, with university revenues tied to student numbers, students are increasingly being actively recruited rather than passively selected. Expansion has also changed the characteristics of the student body (Silver and Silver, 1997): even undergraduate students are increasingly less likely to be conventional 18-21 year olds engaged on a ‘rite of passage’. Central government is seeking, through the funding system, to provide encouragement for the recruitment of ‘non-traditional’ students, leading to a demand for different kinds support and procedures. Finally, students, both traditional and non-traditional, are seen as coming to universities with more demanding expectations, in terms of technologies and administrative efficiency.

At the same time that universities have sought to cope with expansion, and partly in reaction to the stresses that expansion has generated, three has been increasing demand from the state for accountability for public funds. The simple reporting of statistics the central Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) (which itself led to the introduction of a major programme of computerisation in universities – see Goddard and Gayward, 1994) has been augmented by an increasingly invasive set of audits. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) have sought to systematically evaluate teaching and research respectively leading to the establishment of ‘league tables’. These audits directly (RAE) or indirectly (TQA) are determining to a larger and larger extent the real levels of resource in university departments. The growing professionalisation of university teaching with the establishment of the Institute for Teaching and Learning (of which all teaching staff are being very strongly encouraged to become members) and the new Quality Assurance Agency also represent responses to the demands for accountability.

If there are increasing attempts to steer higher education by the British state, there are also pressures acting on HEIs from both above and below the national scale. At the international scale, universities are increasingly seeking to compete for lucrative foreign (non EU) high fee students (see, for one view of all this, Halliday, 1999) and an increasingly international labour market. In terms of international research contracts and grants, such as those from the European Commission, universities are in a much more competitive environment. Equally, at the local and regional scale, there is increasingly recognition of, and state encouragement for, the role of universities in the community, in technology transfer and supporting local moves towards the transition to a ‘knowledge-based’ economy (see e.g., Goddard, et al., 1994).

What does this mean for the university, for the way in which it is organised and for its sense of identity? The responses to these pressures have been widely analysed in terms of the growth of managerialism (Trow 1993), a transition that Parker and Jary (1995) have christened the ‘McUniversity’ (c.f. Ritzer, 1998) and which Shore and Wright (1999) characterise as a ‘new and coercive form of authoritarian governmentality’. It is in this context that universities have sought to harness new technologies, a context in which the notion of the virtual university has suddenly become so very appealing.

Yet the picture is, in organisational terms more complex than is suggested by a simple binary divide between ‘the traditional university’ and the ‘managerial university’. Ian McNay has provided a useful map (figure 1) which lays out what he calls ‘the four cultures of the university’. Of course, as he notes, ‘all four co-exist in most universities’ (ibid.: 106) McNay himself sees a clear progression over the past decades in terms of the dominant culture, specifically from collegium to bureaucracy to corporation to enterprise, culminating in a ‘fragmented’ or ‘atomised’ institution characterised by small, task-focused work units, each having economic and managerial control over its own destiny, interconnected through ‘benign computer and communication links’ and bonding into larger organisations through ‘strong cultural bonds’ (ibid 114).

Figure 1 Models of universities as organisations

















(Source: McNay 1995: 106)

Our own research suggests that this image is too simple. In spite of more than a decade of managerialist reform, the collegium or the ‘traditional university’ remains an important self image for university institutions, albeit one that is understood to be rapidly disappearing and which may never really have existed. Many of university administrators and senior academics in managerial positions that we have spoken to describe their own institutions in terms that uncannily echo McNay’s description of ‘the classic collegial academy’:

A relative lack of co-ordination; a relative absence of regulations; little linkage between the concerns of senior staff as managers and those involved in the key processes of teaching and learning; a lack of congruence between structure and activity; differences in methods, aims and even missions among different departments; little lateral interdependence among departments; infrequent inspection; and the ‘invisibility’ of much that happens (McNay, 1995: 105).

Given this self understanding, where is the university as an institution? Like Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, it often seems that ‘there is no there, there’. There are, of course, elements of bureaucracy (rules, formal roles, etc.), the corporation (co-ordinated means-ends planning) and the enterprise (individual and collective entrepreneurship) present in all institutions. Nevertheless, the traditions of collegial self-management and the heritage of rule by committee mean that these tendencies are always to some extent held in check. Under such conditions it is clear that ‘the university’ is a highly heterogeneous institutional ensemble, which exists primarily in the heads of the people who constituted it, and in a myriad of locally negotiated practices and interactions. This university, as an institution, often appears to exist only ‘virtually’.

What we what to show in the next section is how, in the shift to the model of the virtual university, the applications of the new technologies, aligned with the pressures on funding and the imposition of increasingly short term and instrumental policy goals by the principle funders of higher education, do not seem to be favouring the enterprise model. Rather, they appear to be reinforcing the establishment of a more ‘corporate’ form of organisation where both policy formation and policy implementation are far tighter and goals, roles, identities, abstract rules and standard operating procedures are made explicit and formalised. It is in this sense, then, that we can say that the virtual university is a far more "concrete" organisation than its predecessor.

Building the Virtual University in Practice

What we have found as we have moved around four of the Universities in the North East of England – the universities of Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and the regional centre of the Open University – examining information and communications technology projects in teaching, research and administration, is that the pressures that are released by the use of computers and networks in the university point firmly towards its re-institutionalisation in a more corporate form. Just three examples will have to suffice.

Closing the triangle: OU Students and Commensurability

The Open University (OU) is perhaps the nearest thing to large ‘virtual university’ in the UK. Established in the late 1960s, the OU can claim to be the UK’s largest university, with over 150,000 students. On its own it represents 21% of all part-time higher education students in the UK. OU students interact with the university in two main ways. Courses are developed by Course teams, predominantly based a the University’s Milton Keynes headquarters. This course material is then delivered using a mixture of media – television programmes, video cassettes, paper course packs, more recently CD ROMs and with material from the web, etc. – with the particular mix depending on the course. The second type of interaction with the university is through course tutors (increasingly know as Assistant Lecturers). Students and tutors have traditionally interacted through face-to-face meetings and over the telephone. Tutors are organised on regional basis, some are permanent members of staff (Staff Tutors) but most are part time (often lecturers in conventional universities and colleges). Many courses also have intensive summer schools.

While the OU has undertaken a lot of work centrally on the provision of course materials, it is only more recently that it has sought to use online technologies to mediate the relationships between tutors and students. Student-tutor interaction is primarily facilitated by means of the First Class Conferencing system which gives students access to a number of conferences as well as email. Assessment in the OU is generally in one of two forms – Computer Marked Assignments (CMAs) and, more commonly, Tutor Marked Assignments (TMAs). As the University has deployed the First Class System, and made increasing use of email, it has begun to adopt the practice of Electronic Tutor Marked Assignments (ETMAs) in which the student’s assignment is submitted, marked and commented on electronically, before being sent to the university centrally and returned to the student by email. This is, of course, a fairly mundane use of the new technology. Yet it too, has had its effects, generating new demands on the university centrally. One OU Staff Tutor puts it as follows:

As you know there are a lot of problems, a hell of a lot of problems… now because of the technology you get a greater flow of information. So you get thing like: a student gets 45 in Bristol, I got 75 in Newcastle. Then they start being able to compare. Now, this never happened before. … With the advent of ETMA (Electronic Tutor Marked Assignments) then a student has the script there marked in electronic form. So he can zap it off and they can compare comments. "What my teacher said here, your teacher didn’t pick that up"…. You can try to standardise the marks, and we do that by giving pretty detailed marking schemes, … but for comments, and our teachers are judged as much on their commentary as on the allocation of marks … but the commenting is from minimal to reams - some tutors write loads and loads of stuff and they’re still doing it in electronic form (OU Staff Tutor – J).

What has changed here? The tutor’s comments are simply encoded in electronic form rather than in ink. However, the effect of this re-coding, coupled with the availability of email to the students, is to make those comments far more mobile. It is this mobility that renders them comparable by the student which generates demands for commensurate treatment. The effect on the university is to create a pressure to standardise not just the marking schema (which it has always done) but also the amount and format of the tutors’ comments.

Indeed, as with the more traditional campus universities, staff within the OU are clear about the effects of the institution’s increasing use of ICT to mediate between tutors, students, permanent staff and the administration. Another Staff Tutor describes the implications of ICTs for the Open University thus:

I think that they have found that if they suddenly say "oh, everything’s electronic" and just let everybody do their own things, you basically get chaos. And you cannot have chaos. The only way, then, is to have structures and models. What they are trying to home into is the kind of structures and models: what the course team, any course team, should be responsible for, what the remit and role of the tutor is and what the remit and role of the student is. That is formalising things to a far greater extent (OU Staff Tutor – I).

The key words of the corporate university are all there: structures, models. roles, remits, formalisation.

That’s a matter for policy…

The demand for a more corporate response from the institution is certainly not confined to field of teaching and learning, but extends to new administrative and management systems.

A large redbrick single campus university is in the process of installing a new management information system. The system, provided by a German software house SAP, has a number of modules, one for handling financial information, one for personnel information, one for research projects, one for student records etc. The university is in the process of implementing the financial, human resource and research management modules, prior to adopting the student management module. For the Pro Vice Chancellor in charge of the project, at least, the principal aim of the project is explicitly to ‘bind together a decentralised organisation’.

The implementation is being handled by an implementation team ("The Team") made up of University staff and specialist consultants. Members of the team are meeting with the "faculty support team" and representatives of the departments that are going to pilot the new system. The consultants have a set of "workflow process diagrams" which describe the proposed sequences of events by which tasks such as setting up a research account, raising a purchase order or issuing an invoice will take place within the new system. Each step of the process is described in detailed flow diagrams, indicating which parts of the process take place "on the system" and which take place "off the system" as well as constraints on who can undertake which tasks. Each of the workflow process diagrams is discussed with the departmental representatives and faculty team. The aim of the session is clarify the workflow processes, iron out any problems which arise, and identify who does what.

As the meeting moves through the workflow diagrams, a number of basic rules of the systems are made clear (for example, two separate logins are required to complete each and every transaction – the same login cannot order and receive goods). At some points the workflow diagrams are amended to better reflect the current practice (although this amendment tends to happen more with "off system" events). At a number of points in the process, it becomes clear that there is more than one way, in current practice, in which a particular step in the process can be handled. If the issue cannot be resolved one way or another, the consultant leading the meeting, identifies the issue as ‘a matter for policy’, a matter on a which a definitive ruling must be given by the university centrally.

What seems to be happening here, as the computer system is rolled-out through the university, is more than a mere standardisation of working practices and clarification of roles. Rather the roll-out of the system generates a constant flow of demands for ‘policy’. Indeed, each of these requests for a central university policy decision was logged centrally by the team in a database and passed onto the university management to resolve. The process not only sees the ‘tightening up’ of roles and procedures, but it also demands a tightening up of policy which will apply not locally, but across the university, in effect calling the university into being as a far more corporate institution. We might almost say that the roll out of the system is requiring the simultaneous roll-out of a new (and more standardised) institution to host it.

(re-)creating the institution

These pressures for a more standardised and corporate kind of university not only happening as a result of the cumulative (and perhaps unforeseen) consequences of the move to a more computer mediated institution. In some institutions, as the next case makes clear, they are quite consciously planned as such.

A large university, formerly a polytechnic, has established a programme on ‘Excellence’ in the use of information and communications technologies. This programme has a number of strands concerned with infrastructures (the internet as a ‘global campus’), the commercialisation of knowledge, support services (a ‘Multimedia Authoring Laboratory’) and a set of experimental ‘Flexible Learning’ projects. While there were a number of sites of experimentation with new technologies in the university prior to the start of the programme, the programme was founded to link-up, support and extend this experimentation across the whole organisation. The Programme’s director describes it thus:

Excellence in Use of C&IT … was a way of going right across faculty and departmental boundaries, breaking them down. And that’s the whole ethos behind the project – that we want to share experience across the University rather than reinventing wheels in every little corner (Programme Director)

A major component of the programme is a number of experiments in using new information and communications technologies for ‘flexible and distance learning’. The key concern for the programme managers, however, is not particularly to have a raft of successful projects, but rather to develop models of distance and flexible learning that can be ‘scaled’ up to the institution as a whole. A key sponsor of the programme describes it thus:

What we wanted out of it was not some projects that in their own terms were successful and maybe glamorous in the world outside, but models that might be scaleable for the institution for distance and flexible learning, that could survive the transition from the enthusiasts – who will make it work come what may – to regular line provision (Service Director)

The ultimate aim is thus to establish the precise structures, roles and responsibilities necessary to implement online learning. The programme director describes the aims of the project as follows:

Currently, because of the way the programme is going – and it is a development programme and I think that we’ll stress that – a lot of the pseudo-admin work has been done by academic staff. They’re doing the tracking, they’re setting the things up. But to me, when you run it, as probably they will run it in the future, it would be too expensive for them to do that so the administrators would need access rights and they could do some of the humdrum day-to-day checking of whether work’s come in, how many times a student has logged on etc. etc. So we will need to define, and I think rewrite, the roles and responsibilities. (Programme Director)

The familiar issues of commensurability and consistency arise. As the director the university’s Information Services Department (a joint library and computer services unit) puts it ‘We ought to be able to tell a student in Kuala Lumpa, "if you become a student of the University of ----, what’s the deal" and that ought to be consistent across the piece’.

Once again, the key words, in this case much more explicitly coded into university policy, are to rebuild the institution around the technology. The Director of Information Services is again clear about all of this:

The thing that trips it up isn’t that the technology doesn’t work, its trying to recreate the organisation so that it can usefully apply the technology, rather than crippling [the technology] so that we can do things the way we did before (Service Director)

The goal then, is to make the whole organisation ‘very corporate by university standards’:

rather than making a whole lot of decisions in various places and after the event hoping that they fit together, rather you co-ordinate – if you like – all those decisions are made more collaboratively in the context of the whole. That’s what I understand by it. (Service Director)

What the programme seeks to achieve, then, is coherence at the centre, decisions made ‘in the context of the whole’, ‘consistent across the piece’.

Conclusion: the Virtual University is the University Made Concrete

What is going on here? What does all this mean for the university as an institution? Building the virtual university appears to require, at least in the first instance, the construction of a far more corporate structure capable of co-ordinated action with formalised roles and standardised practices. Indeed, our research suggests, this does seem to be case: attempts to build the virtual university from the bottom-up, course-by-course, without reconstructing the basic structures of the university appears to be very slow, labour intensive and highly prone to failure. One last set of examples will have to suffice.

We have followed the progress of a number of initiatives, led by the Learning Development Services department in another new university (former polytechnic) for over a year: there was a humanities degree course, where video-conferencing technologies were used to connect undergraduates based in the UK with students located in other parts of Europe, the idea being that they could present work and ideas to each other, and receive feedback, much like a traditional seminar; then there was the new ‘Cyber Culture’ course, available for credit as a self-study module over the Internet; and, finally, there was the ‘Information Skills’ module taught by library staff, which had also been translated into an online self-study module. Week after week we sat in on technical sessions and planning meetings as the academic material was gathered, the technology was developed, and the actual form of these initiatives began to take shape. Staff who were keen to be involved in the rolling-out of the projects were contacted, and possible groups of students willing to be part of the experiment were identified.

Yet, just a couple of months after everything had seemingly been put in place, each of the projects has – for want of a better word – ‘stalled’. The immediate reasons for this are varied: one of the partners pulled out of the video-conferencing project complaining of high telecommunication costs; only one distance student had enrolled for the Cyber Culture course; and library staff could not be convinced that the online version of the Information Skills course was sufficiently improved to warrant its introduction in place of their existing methods. What is common to each of these stories, however, is the failure to enrol (or to keep enrolled) all of those aspects of the university necessary to make the projects work (academic staff, students, computer services departments, libraries, validation committees, partner institutions, etc.). Further, in the site that we studied, there were aspects of the University that were crucial for the success of the projects and that did not exist and therefore had to be built – for instance, the University lacked procedures for validating online courses – slowing the whole process. Each of the initiatives was confounded by difficulties in co-ordinating a wide range of actors across a large organisation made up of diverse and disparate entities (i.e., departments and service units). The very heterogeneity of the university defeated the best attempts at what John Law (1994) has called ‘heterogeneous engineering’.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. The very notion of information, which sits at the root of the notion of a virtual university and it’s ability to abstract from place – the specific, the parochial – contains within it a powerful incentive to formalise, to standardise, to make explicit, to make concrete. As Theodore Porter, for example, argues,

the creation and use of information needs to be understood first of all as a problem of space and of scale, of getting beyond what is local, personal or intimate and creating knowledge that is, so far as possible, neutral and well standardized (1994: 217)

‘The ideal’, he suggests, ‘is to go beyond perspective, to turn a view from somewhere into a "view from nowhere"’ (ibid.). ‘A world of information, in short, is a world of standardized objects and neutralized subjects’ which can be contrasted with ‘local sites where skill and intimate familiarity with people and things provide the most promising route to success’ (Porter, 1994: 221). To what extent, we might finally ask, is this pacified world, and the concrete structures necessary to create it, compatible with the processes of higher education?


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This paper draws on the project Space, Place and the Virtual University, funded under the ESRC’s Virtual Society? Programme.

I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of my collaborators, Neil Pollock, Kevin Robins, David Charles, John Goddard and Frank Webster, on which this paper draws.

James Cornford
Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


More on Virtual Universities:

Andrea Buchholz - Conference report The Virtual University: Educational environments of the future
Philip E. Agre - Infrastructure and Institutional Change in the Networked University


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