The prospect of UK universities run by Google or Facebook has divided the channel, with some eyeing it sceptically and others seeing it as the kind of radical shake-up that is needed to close the skills gap.
Government plans outlined in a whitepaper today to improve choice in higher education would make it easier for "challenger institutions" to award their own degrees.
Various reports this morning, including in the Daily Express and Daily Mirror, suggested the plans could pave the way for large corporations, including tech giants such as Google or Facebook, to enter academia for the first time in the UK.
Rupert Mills, director of Surrey-based reseller Krome Technologies (pictured), argued that the plans are a good idea "if you are Google", but questioned whether they would actually fulfil the stated aim of easing the technology skills gap.
"Facebook, Google, Tesla etc are well known in the US for cherry-picking the students they want out of universities, and letting them open universities would allow them to do more of that," he said, highlighting recent headlines about Uber poaching scores of staff from Carnegie Mellon University.
"I think in terms of the skills gap, long term it would probably be a good thing to have more tech-focused universities. But, that said, there are a number of universities that are tech-focused, so that funding or influence might be better working with existing universities. There will be a level of nervousness around universities working with those people because of what's happened already. If you get a Google-funded or owned university, their top staff are obviously going to work at Google, which will give them a commercial advantage – it's a massive [advantage] for them, but whether it brings a significant advantage to everyone else at the university, who knows."
Lawrence Jones, CEO of UKFast (pictured left), also gave the idea of a Google-backed university short shrift.
"I think it's a bit of nonsense, because we've already got some great universities," he said.
"I think there's a really good, collaborative way of working with universities and schools. We are working with schools to help them with the curriculum and also with universities, where we are delivering the first Msc in cloud computing and e-commerce that is being covered by commercial business."
Jones added: "I'm a great believer that business needs to do more with universities but for someone to say 'we're going to build a standalone university because we're cool and have loads of money' – I think Google and Facebook and these sorts of businesses need to focus on a core product and stop trying to diversify and be too clever."
However, Dan May, commercial director of Godalming-based consultancy Ramsac (pictured, below right), welcomed the prospect of private corporations including tech firms being given a greater role in academia.
"I think it is a positive step. The way people learn, along with the way we work generally, is changing faster than ever before and recognising that learning comes in a multitude of different forms is really positive," he said.
"If you are large organisation with a training department that can stand up to the rigours of qualification venting – and I'm assuming all these qualifications are going to have to be vetted by the awarding body – then why not? Why is training that is done on the job inferior to what you do at university? The candidates that graduate after their 12-month IT apprenticeship [with Ramsac] are more work ready than the graduates we take from university, and this is just an extension of that."
According to the Daily Mirror, although the Department for Business has given Facebook and Google as examples of the kind of firms that could set up "challenger universities", neither tech firm has actually been approached about the idea.
The government plans outlined today will also allow top universities to hoist tuition fees above the current £9,000 ceiling from next year.
Universities and science minister Jo Johnson said: "Making it easier for high-quality challenger institutions to start offering their own degrees will help drive up teaching quality, boost the economy and extend aspiration and life chances for students from all backgrounds."
Tom Kelly, who chairs the ICT sector panel for the Welsh government and is also non-executive chairman for Agilitas, also welcomed the prospect of tech firms such as Google getting more involved in the UK universities system.
"I'm hyper critical of the output that is coming out of the universities because the universities, in my view, are actually taking too long to react and change the course content that the sector needs," he said.
"Something significant has got to change: IBM has had 19 consecutive quarters of decline in revenue and HP has divided itself in two, yet the new guys on the block likes of Google and Uber and Amazon are doing fantastically well. I applaud the new entrants because I believe they will bring an extra dimension and different vision to the whole area of education and teaching. I don't believe a university degree should only be given out by someone who is called a ‘university'. I believe that, as we go on, there will be a new form of institution - we can't continue to lag behind the way we are not only in the UK, but the whole of Europe."
Gary Haycock-West, CEO of security VAR Blue Cube, gave a mixed verdict on the news.
"My initial response is a positive one, but then I can see a looming dark side," he said.
"There is definitely a looming skill shortage in our sector. But the downside is, if it becomes proprietary, how balanced is the education? The perception may be that [the degree] is biased towards the way Google wants the world to be seen."
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