Trends in HE: Global market set to shake up old rules

June 11, 2004

For-profit higher education has yet to make a significant impact outside the US because the market is still expanding rapidly - and lucratively - in America. When the US market hits saturation point, the key players will inevitably turn their attentions elsewhere.

Worldwide, higher education is already moving away from the model of the traditional 18-year-old undergraduate entrant taught in the physical presence of academics.

Numbers of part-time students at UK universities are rising at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and, if global trends continue, more students are destined to be taught be outside state universities. Many will study online with private institutions such as the University of Phoenix or Laureate Education (formerly Sylvan Learning Systems). Earlier this year, Phoenix - which has 200,000 students, most of whom work - cut its minimum enrolment age from 23 to 21.

While US demand remains high, Laureate and Apollo, which owns Phoenix, are likely to focus on the traditional market.

But in time, they will exploit existing networks to maximise opportunities abroad.

Like the UK's Open University, Phoenix focuses on a section of society outside the traditional student group - older students, second-chance students and workers. Although both institutions strive to organise themselves to meet students' circumstances, some constraints - such as the fixed academic year and annual or half-yearly starting points - remain.

A Unesco-led debate on the future of distance learning earlier this year discussed how to break the pattern. During the online debate, Sir John Daniel, then assistant director-general for education at Unesco and a former vice-chancellor of the OU, endorsed the approach of Athabasca University, which lets students begin their courses at their convenience.

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