Distance learning will offer the winning move

June 11, 2004

Off-campus study is the only cost-effective way forward for higher education, says Brenda Gourley

In the US, the number of students aged 24 and over has long since overtaken the number of "traditional" 18 to 24-year-olds. And the statistics do not even begin to capture the numbers studying in the host of new organisations in the education business. "Corporate universities" are a multibillion-dollar concern.

Publishers such as Pearson, computer and software manufacturers such as Cisco and Microsoft, and not-for-profit organisations such as City and Guilds are all providers of higher education content. The world of e-learning has added to the mix. Institutions that would never have seen themselves as international players are now striving to attract "virtual" students from all over the world. "International students" have come to mean something quite different.

One would imagine this to be an extremely healthy state of affairs. But the Government's Higher Education Bill adds a peculiar incentive. It is designed to fund universities by the number of full-time students they attract - and, incidentally, places no limit on international students who pay a large fee. A rational response is clearly to focus on the full-time market and international students. The mantra of lifelong learning has clearly not been internalised by our political masters. Institutions that have taken it seriously by catering for part-time students are now very sorry indeed.

The demographics, to say nothing of the already discernable trend, indicate that it is simply not financially viable to build more and more physical infrastructure, even if it could be staffed (which it cannot).

In 1997, Peter Drucker, the management guru, had this to say: "Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won't survive as a residential institution. Today's buildings are hopelessly unsuited and totally unneeded."

It is time we came to acknowledge that a system designed to cater for less than 5 per cent of the population has to be rethought when the goal is now 50 per cent. The education game has changed so radically that we need to fundamentally change the rules by which we play. There is no point in playing one game with the rules applicable to a different game entirely.

The good news is that technology is so sophisticated that we can, realistically and viably, write new rules. Technology and the internet, combined with the principles of open and distance learning, are providing the lead.

This is not exactly cheap, requiring as it does massive investment in infrastructure and in the design and production of material. Cost efficiency is, of course, affected by the number of learners enrolled, the number of years over which the courses are offered without substantial change, the choice of technology, the level of student support and a range of lesser factors. If, however, one accounts for the fact that students incur little or no travel costs, can study mostly from home and therefore incur no additional accommodation costs, there really is no contest as to which is the most cost-effective. And because of large-scale production, distance education systems can invest large sums in the design and development of learning material, so the quality is usually higher than conventional institutions.

The quality of student support is often what distinguishes a quality learning experience at one educational institution from that at another - but technology is making inroads into what is possible here as well. A further trend in higher education will be the use of distance education to acquire the skills required in this new knowledge society over a lifetime.

All over the world, as we care more and more about the fundamental right of all people to learn, we come to realise that open and distance education is the only way forward.

The rich will always be able to look after themselves (and it is their children who are flocking to our universities). But for ordinary people the combination of satellite technology, learning technology and a host of newly established distance-learning organisations (many modelled on the Open University here in the UK) mean that more is possible than ever before.

As Sir John Daniel writes in a Unesco booklet on the issue: "As a force contributing to social and economic change, open and distance learning is fast becoming an accepted and indispensable part of mainstream educational systems in both the developed and developing world."

What we need is a funding model that recognises this reality.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the Open University.

Higher Education Trends will appear soon in the statistics section of the website.


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