Emerging Economies Summit: Ex-Unesco chief urges regulation of online learning platforms

Measures to limit the dominance of Western universities in online learning may be required, says Getachew Engida

October 20, 2021
Getachew Engida
Source: UAEU
Getachew Engida

The dizzying growth of online learning platforms during the pandemic has raised questions about whether they should be regulated internationally to avoid market monopoly by elite Western universities, a former senior United Nations official has said.

Getachew Engida, who served as deputy director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) from 2010 to 2018, told Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit that he had concerns that a small number of well-known universities were coming to dominate online education via their partnerships with digital providers such as edX and Coursera.

“You need to have some regulatory environment to ensure some do not dominate at the expense of others,” Professor Engida, now a distinguished professor and co-director of Tsinghua University’s China-African Leadership Development Institute, told THE’s summit in Dubai, which was held in association with the United Arab Emirates University.

His concerns come amid growing worries about “platform imperialism” in the digital learning space, which some fear may make it impossible for non-Western universities to develop their own online learning tools thanks to the dominance of established Western providers that have partnered with leading universities to offer both free and paid-for online courses.

Online learning platforms have boomed in popularity during the pandemic, with Coursera said to have 77 million active learners and edX 44 million. Coursera, founded nine years ago by two Stanford University professors, is now valued at $7 billion (£5 billion) after listing on the New York Stock Exchange in March 2021, having been valued at $1 billion in 2019 and $2.5 billion in 2020. edX, which was created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was recently sold in a deal worth $800 million (£560 million).

Professor Engida, an Ethiopian-born executive who has held leadership positions at Ernst & Young and Reuters, told THE’s summit that he welcomed the educational opportunities created by online providers but had concerns that “certain institutions will dominate for a while”.

“But I would not go as far as to say this is a recolonisation of higher education,” he added.

Professor Engida was, however, keen to see regulation to encourage leading online learning providers to have a “governance system with multiple stakeholders”, he said, which he hoped would support moves to make education “open and accessible”.

“You need to have some international mechanism to regulate certain aspects of what are very international operations,” he said.


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