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Is the ‘Distributed University’ the future of higher education?

  • 14 January 2022
  • By Richard Heller

This blog was contributed by Richard Heller, Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester and author of The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education.

There are many threats to the future of universities. These include the need to ensure environmental sustainability, to be responsive to the way people access information today (and will do tomorrow), to reduce the dependence on overseas student income while addressing global inequalities in access to higher education, and policies which allow teaching income to be subverted to subsidise research and a reward system for academics that prioritises research over educational excellence. The adoption of the competitive business model may not lead to programmes that reflect societal, national and global educational needs, and reduces the potential benefits of collaboration across the higher education sector. Intrusive managerial oversight is preferred to the placing of trust in academics, centralised inner city ivory towers preclude engagement with local communities and industries, and there is a failure to engage with modern learning technologies. Many of these issues have been brought into focus by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education, a new open-access book, describes the problems facing the sustainability of the higher education system, and proposes the ‘Distributed University’ as a solution to many of the problems.

A key to the solution to many of these problems is a pivot to online learning. While many students have not had a good experience of online learning during Covid, this may well be due to the lack of time to do more than record lectures and place them online as well as an inability to replicate the social advantages of the campus experience. Best quality online education utilises the benefits of information and communication technology (and puts in place the opportunity to respond to future innovations associated with the fourth industrial revolution), reduces the acknowledged educational deficiencies of the lecture, and achieves the same, or better, educational outcomes as face-to-face learning.

This approach allows structural changes to create the ‘Distributed University’. Centralised large campuses are replaced by smaller central administrative and infrastructure facilities and educational activity takes place in local hubs – which themselves may be physical or virtual. Education is mainly offered online rather than in lecture halls, and local or regional hubs engage with local communities, industries and education providers from other sectors, and encourages practice based active learning. Much of this can be replicated across geography and time to address global and regional inequalities in access, as well as to respond to changing lifetime educational needs. These structural changes will replace large carbon intensive buildings and reduce travel requirements (including by overseas students), reducing the carbon footprint of higher education.

As well as the structural change that the pivot to online learning allows, there are a number of other possibilities that open up. Collaboration can be supported online and can replace the unnecessary competition between universities – an International Baccalaureate for higher education is proposed. A further revision to Bloom’s taxonomy ‘New Bloom’ is suggested and would include collaboration. Online education can be offered globally to reduce inequalities in access to higher education – a programme ‘Global Online Learning’ is also proposed to build national credibility as global educational providers.

A reduction in centralisation allows managerialism to be replaced by trust in academics – online education by its nature is much more transparent than the face-to-face version, allowing non-intrusive quality assurance.

Many of these ideas are stimulated by the experience of a volunteer led global online public health capacity building programme, and extensive references to this and other sources are given in the book.

In summary, the ‘Distributed University’ distributes education online, reducing regional and global inequalities in access and impact on the environment, distributes trust in place of managerialism, and collaboration in place of competition and sets up the higher education sector to adapt to changes in the ways we work and learn today. The book and this blog are designed to stimulate debate. I welcome feedback and any ideas for how to refine and progress the ideas proposed.


  1. Russell Wordley says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience of a lack of engagement with communities, industry and modern learning technologies. Within my own institution there is a great desire to forge local links and embrace new technologies. Online learning is clearly an important part of the offering provided by higher education institutions. However, I do not feel that you have fully understood the impact on mental health. The suggestion in your book that setting up online communities would somehow address this does not align with the views of students who have made it clear that they want their learning experience to include face-to-face interaction with lecturers and their peers. A hybrid approach is the way forward for HE and how that is balanced should be guided by feedback from our students.

  2. Richard Heller says:

    Thank you, Russell, for your comments. The Distributed University does not preclude face-to-face contact, but it reduces it and replaces it with other forms of contact – in fact the forms of contact that most young people are using now and will in the future. The pivot to online allows so many other opportunities, such as reducing environmental impact and tackling regional and global inequalities in access. While important, I think that we need to look further than student feedback to guide higher education policy.

  3. albert wright says:

    How does your proposed model differ from that already provided by the Open University?

  4. Richard Heller says:

    The Open University is a wonderful institution that certainly embodies many of the features of the Distributed University. The most important of these is the centrality of online learning. I can’t comment on the extent to which some aspects of the Distributed University are followed at the Open University, such as distributing trust in place of managerialism and collaboration in place of competition. The point I am trying to make in the book, is that the higher education system needs to change, not just individual universities. I have proposed increased collaboration (including an International Baccalaureate for higher education and a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy), ways of reducing global inequalities in access to higher education, and a programme to allow a proportion of educational resources produced by publicly funded universities to be available to all. Getting education fit for the fourth industrial revolution is key, and I am sure that the Open University, as a leader in online learning and educational technology, is already thinking about this.

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