The Future of Higher Education: Virtual versus Conventional Universities, Spring 2001

Accessible Version

by Michael W. Clarke
Consultant on Teaching with Technology, Teaching Support Centre
Number 45, April 2001

No more pencils, no more books, no more professors, no more classrooms, no more campus - welcome to the virtual university.

Noted management consultant and self-proclaimed guru, Peter Drucker, claims that the physical presence of universities will cease to exist within ten years. (1) According to Drucker, all post-secondary education will, within 10 years, be delivered by technology, through the Internet to the device of choice belonging to the learner. There will be no such thing as the "campus" as defined by real estate values, and there will be no need for university students to meet face-to-face with their professors since the courses they will be taking for their degree programs will be overseen by Nobel prize winning scholars located in some distant space and time.

Drucker is clearly at one extreme of a spectrum of opinion on the issue of the role of new information technologies in higher education. The other extreme, if it can be called that, may be represented by Neil Postman, currently Chair of the Culture and Communications Department at New York University and a self-proclaimed Luddite. This article will attempt to function as a bridge between these two schools of thought and to bring the lessons learned to the local environment here at The University of Western Ontario.

I want to deal with some of the many issues that cloud and excite our imaginations and emotions when we consider the future of higher education and the role of technology in it. I'll try to:

  • clarify the structure and function of public vs. private universities;
  • differentiate between virtual and conventional universities;
  • discuss the influence of the private sector on the direction of higher education in Canada; and
  • describe the role of technology in both the conventional and the virtual university.

Of course, none of these issues is totally independent from the others.

Private versus Public Universities

Until recently in Ontario, legislation regulating post-secondary education was embodied in Bill 41, the Degree Granting Act of 1983. This Bill granted a monopoly to Ontario's publicly funded universities to grant secular degrees.

Post-secondary institutions with religious affiliations were permitted, under the Act, to grant undergraduate degrees. These institutions are "private" in that they receive no public funding and are funded entirely through tuition and other private sources.

The political climate in Ontario has changed since 1983. In December of last year, the provincial legislature repealed Bill 41 and gave Royal Assent to Bill 132 that contained one new Act called the Post-Secondary Education Choice and Excellence Act. Bill 41 includes the following:

  • creates the Post-secondary Education Quality Board that would receive all applications for the creation of private universities;
  • declares that private universities will receive no government funding;
  • stipulates that any private post-secondary institution must provide "financial protection" for students.

It is important to clearly define what is meant by a "private" university in Ontario. Although there have been private elementary and secondary schools in the province for many years, and private post-secondary vocational institutions are well known, the concept of a private university in Ontario is new.

The proposed models follow well-established American patterns. Private, non-profit universities would be structured after, for example, the Harvard/MIT/Stanford models where revenues stream from high tuition and ample private endowments. Private, for-profit universities would function as does Phoenix University, the largest private university in the US, where revenues originate from student tuition and from shareholder investment in the parent corporation whose shares are traded on the open market.

The Ontario government believes that allowing both types of private universities to operate in the province would enhance both accessibility and quality.

Many, including the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, have argued strongly against this reasoning, fearing that the future of higher education would be greatly threatened by such establishments. (2) As we'll see, the future has arrived in Ontario.

The Business of Higher Education

Just as the public health care sector, higher education is seen as a potentially lucrative "industry" by private enterprise. The dollar value of post-secondary education (which is often confused and combined with "training") has been estimated to be $14 billion in Ontario, $60 billion in Canada, $740 billion in the US and $2 trillion globally. (3)

These numbers are enough to induce copious salivation in even the mildest entrepreneur, and it is curious that the first public expression of interest in establishing a private university in this province has come from a former provincial Minister of Education (Bette Stevenson).

In the US, the ongoing saga of UCLA's attempt to enter this "market" by selling the rights and intellectual property of its faculty in an exclusive arrangement that lacked any legal assignment of such rights by faculty members themselves has been investigated in minute detail by David Noble of York University. (4)

The concept of a private university per se does not differentiate between establishing a campus-based institution and a virtual university. It is clear, though, that a much stronger business case can be made for a virtual university since the costs, compared to building a physical campus, are minimal.

Although many factors are at work in creating a favourable climate for the establishment of private universities in Ontario, the low cost, power and flexibility of new information and communications technologies are major influences along with the prospect of substantial profits.

The Role of Technology in Higher Education

It is the apparent direct link between the new technologies and the possibility of private, for-profit universities setting up shop in Ontario that has caused much concern for university faculty across the province. That there is a link is clear, but to say that technology can serve only the interests of the salivating entrepreneur is unjust.

Neil Postman states "I think the single most important lesson we should have learned in the past twenty years is that technological progress is not the same thing as human progress." (5) Postman's observations on what he sees as the intrusion of technology into higher learning are often taken as those of a Luddite incapable of adapting to the new reality.

As an educator, Postman is driven more by a sense of social responsibility than by market demands. He sees technology as a wedge driven between those who teach and those who learn -- that is, education is first and foremost an exercise of discovery utterly dependent on interpersonal communication.

Few would argue against that position. Regardless of one's discipline, it is essential for the teacher to transmit content, intent, enthusiasm and passion for their field of inquiry to teach effectively.

The claim can be made, however, that effective communication is not confined to the traditional classroom or even to a one-on-one tutorial -- communication and, by extension, teaching can be effectively accomplished in the absence of face-to-face contact between teacher and student.

Research carried out here at UWO by Dr. Mary-Anne Andrusyszyn in the Faculty of Health Sciences, School of Nursing, has shown that students enjoy the flexibility an online medium affords. Many discover their "voice" in the open, democratic, respectful, and collaborative learning space an expert facilitator can help create. The sense of audience further encourages learners to express ideas, share information, and construct knowledge. This active engagement may not consistently be evidenced by all participants in classroom-based discussions due to time constraints and occasional competition for "air time". (6)

For several years now, TeleEducation New Brunswick has been developing an extensive bibliography derived from the academic literature in education research showing that there is "no significant difference" in students' learning outcomes when education is delivered by conventional classroom-based methods compared to on-line learning in virtual environments. (7) The fact that this research demonstrates "no significant difference" has been perceived by technology enthusiasts as having met the gold standard for higher education through technology. More recently, these same enthusiasts have been further encouraged by a body of literature showing students who learned through technology-based distance education programs actually performed "significantly" better than their fellow students confined to the classroom. (8)

It is unlikely that this controversy will be solved in the near future. These studies are fraught with difficulties including a lack of consensus as to what constitutes a valid measure of student learning, inconsistent methodologies and numerous uncontrolled variables.

But as long as the controversy persists the business community will see opportunities for creating low cost, technology-based "solutions" for higher education.

The Knowledge Economy

In addition to the potentially large markets and low costs already mentioned, the situation is confounded by pronouncements that we now live in an "information society" fuelled by a "knowledge economy". Indeed, Western's President Paul Davenport has researched and published in this area providing data suggesting that it is the informed, educated citizen who will possess wealth in the new world order.

The problem is that when knowledge is considered as a metaphor for wealth, education becomes a commodity that can be bought, sold and traded. Just as currency speculation is the lowest form of equity trading, so speculation in and commercialization of the "education market" can be considered a kind of bottom feeding.

However, one of the most powerful arguments in favour of providing easy, life-long access to educational opportunities is the sheer exponential growth in information and research databases we are now experiencing. In my area of research, biomedicine, there are over 1000 research articles entered into our literature database, Medline, each and every day. Moreover, a study published about four years ago showed that around 40% of these articles were presenting data and conclusions that either modified or outright refuted previously published findings.

Similar transformations are occurring in the social sciences, humanities and the arts. The implications are clear and challenging: the definition of "expertise" is narrowing, the concept of "truth" is time sensitive and we're all stressed out.

What roles can technology, private enterprise, public education and governments play in addressing these problems?

Lansbridge University

In the US, there is virtually a no-holds barred attitude at the federal and state levels when it comes to commoditizing higher education -- Phoenix University mentioned above being one of the more well-known examples. In Canada, there is currently only one private university operating that has degree-granting status recognized at the provincial level.

Lansbridge University was first incarnated as Unexus University in 1999. The main player behind the plan was Michael Gaffney, President and CEO of LearnSoft, Corporation, (keynote speaker at Spring Perspectives on May 8) who previously was an executive at Newbridge Networks, Inc., an Ottawa based manufacturer of network hardware (acquired by Alcatel in 2000).

Unexus University, a wholly owned subsidiary of LearnSoft, Corp. (CDNX:LT), applied for and received accreditation in the province of New Brunswick. Last year, Unexus University's name changed to Lansbridge University.

Without doubt, Lansbridge will be seeking official status as a private, for-profit university in Ontario, following on the new regulations of Bill 132. Currently, Lansbridge offers various flavours of a Master's of Business Administration degree, all in an on-line, internet-based medium. The university is clearly catering to a niche market -- in fact, the same niche market targeted by the Richard Ivey School of Business here at UWO in their Executive MBA program.

The University of Western Ontario, Inc.?

Under existing provincial legislation, UWO is a conventional public, non-profit institution of higher learning. Perhaps a more accurate term is "publicly assisted" university since provincial government grants now contribute no more than 46% of our total operating budget and the relative contribution from student tuition is steadily increasing.

In spite of Drucker's predictions, it is unlikely that Western's status or existence will be affected either by the appearance of private universities (either non- or for-profit) or by the growing influence of new technologies in our academic programs.

Western has a widespread reputation as a residential university with a higher percentage of undergraduate students living on campus than any other in Ontario. Surveys of entering students suggest that it is this feature of Western, among others, that attracts students to this campus.

Faculty at UWO have been actively engaged in exploiting new information and communications technologies for their teaching programs, particularly in the last three years since the Instructional Technology Resource Centre (ITRC) opened in 1998. The role of the ITRC was considered in a report to Senate last year from the Senate Committee on University Planning ad hoc sub-committee on instructional technology. (9)

There is a tradition of distance education at UWO and, over time, these courses are gradually being moved into the on-line environment. Where there is a clear (market) demand, on-line programs are being developed, the Bachelor's program in Administrative and Commercial Studies being the first under development at UWO.

Unlike the situation at many American universities, particularly UCLA, the integration of new technologies into teaching and learning programs at Western is being driven by faculty.

The Bottom Line (or the Take Home Message for the less fiscally oriented)

I've attempted to describe relationships between computer and information technologies on one hand and trends in the privatization of higher education on the other. I haven't considered in any detail the role of technology in conventional, classroom-based or distance teaching. I thought it was more important to distinguish and separate the technology itself from its increasing role as the platform for private enterprise in higher education.

Although there are those who suggest that the Internet has "changed everything", in reality the fundamental premise behind research intensive institutions of higher education has not altered: to explore, discover and create new knowledge and to distribute that knowledge in such a fashion as to stimulate further exploration, discovery and creation.

The only value that higher education has is its contribution to the quality of life and quality is not easily or entirely measured by objective, bean-like economic units. A public university can never be successfully structured or operated as a business -- the concept of "profit" in public higher education is perhaps most accurately reflected in the sense of pride that staff, students and faculty have in their institution.

It remains to be seen, then, if our public universities or the new private institutions about to appear in Ontario can maintain or achieve "profitability".

Michael W. Clarke is Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at The University of Western Ontario. He received his Ph.D. in 1982 from the University of Guelph and has been teaching at Western since 1986. He has been active with UWO's Instructional Technology Resource Centre since its inception.


1.Jack Beatty, The World According to Peter Drucker, New York: Free Press, 1998.

2.Private Universities in Ontario: Decoys Instead of Dollars for Post-secondary Education, OCUFA Research Report, vol. 1 no.2, (March 29, 2000).

3.Michael Moe and Henry Blodget, "The Knowledge Web", San Francisco: Merrill Lynch, 2000.

4.David Noble: Digital Diploma Mills, 1997-2001.

5.Jay Walljasper: Neil Postman is no Progressive, 2000.

6.Andrusyszyn, M.A., Iwasiw, C., & Goldenberg, D. (1999). Computer conferencing in graduate nursing education: Perceptions of students and faculty. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 30(6), 272-278.>

7.Thomas Russell: The No Significant Difference Phenomenon

8. Thomas Russell: The Significant Difference Phenomenon

9. Report of the SCUP Subcommittee on Instructional Technology