Working The Next Idea: A School of Digital Media

This is the nearest thing to a Liberal Arts college I can get to do in the Private Sector. So I am interested: In fact, I am completely focused on this now.

This is an interesting turn in my life. Six months ago, I made a career transition into higher education - but did not exactly know what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach, do research and write a bit, but living inside a Private College 24x7 meant more than that. I entered with an open mind, never said no to any work and learnt many things. About now, I am ready to pursue my ideas yet again.

This is an interesting and scary time in British private education. Government clearly wants to shift to private funding of higher education. They have come up with a middle of the way review report, which seems radical and slightly woolly at this time. (Alan Ryan in Times Higher Education is sceptical that the recommendations will ever be implemented) But I would rather take Browne report as a statement of intent and a hint rather than a policy announcement: I do think students in this country will eventually face a much worse situation than envisaged in this report.

There are these hidden bits in the report which will eventually bring about that demonic future. It is not about the funding: This is indeed the bit being highlighted and fought over, but that indeed is the gentlest part of the report. What is not so gentle is the corporatization of the higher education sector, by linking education too closely with productivity and final salaries and creating a super-quango with a CEO who may decide which courses may or may not get the loans. This means cutting off the humanities and social sciences to a large extent, exactly as it is happening in developing countries with emergent private sector higher education. This means the rise of a technocratic society and eventually an undermining of democracy, but this, for the moment, will lie in the future.

We will come back to this discussion in a moment, but there is another interesting change happening in the private sector education in Britain. Private, For-Profit education in Britain is a sort of murky business so far, primarily attended by overseas students who have to pay a much higher fee if they have to go to the public universities. Private sector colleges, which mostly cut their teeth in delivering professional qualifications, have recently moved with the government policies and started offering franchised undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes, primarily to keep their overseas audience happy: These degrees earned a Post-Study Work visa in Britain which most of these students anyway wanted.

But this business is now on the verge of extinction. The British economy is reeling from the recession and the government is making big cutbacks on immigration numbers, particularly in student numbers. It is expected that the number of student visas issued to people coming from outside EU will halve, which means that many colleges will close or will have to change their business models.

This is therefore a time for change. At one end, an university sector in turmoil and in search of efficiencies; on the other, a private for-profit education sector desperate for a new business model for survival. This setting makes a great case for a good and profitable public/private partnership, and creation of collaborative courses which are more flexible and efficient.

This is why I see an opportunity. And, not just a financial opportunity, which is there: There is a social opportunity of maintaining the balance in an overtly technocratic society and a chance to preserve the soul in a crowd going dizzy about materialism. A space for art, parallel thinking, of innovation and of relationships: An interesting fusion between the efficiencies of the for-profit and the high-mindedness of liberal arts. I think this is exactly the sort of opportunity that gives me energy.

Over the past few weeks, I have visited and observed some of Britain's best media schools. The range of new ideas there are refreshing. There was hardly a meeting where I didn't learn anything new. Contrast that with the stifled bureaucracy of the business departments with the universities, and the desperateness of management education to find a new, sustainable paradigm, and one almost knows where the future will belong. This comes hand in hand the government's enthusiasm about what The Economist calls The Silicon Roundabout, the rather derelict Old Street roundabout and the neighbourhoods of Camden and Hackney where new Internet and Technology entrepreneurs are suddenly releasing a host of exciting new products and ideas. This For-Profit meets Liberal Arts meets the Future is more exciting than I initially thought.

So, I am now set to do what I love best: Create a school of Digital Media and Internet Technologies in East London under the aegis of my current college, but with a new ethos and possibly identity. The idea is to combine a high energy team of different talents and a range of courses on Digital Media; all this in the context of the emerging limitations to our freedom and democracy and a commitment to be free. I think this commitment to freedom will be as important as the technologies we employ in the new school, because, creativity and progress is indeed about people and beliefs rather than technological possibilities.


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