‘Flat-pack’ students need help with isolation

Providing support for learners on low-cost ‘flat-pack degrees’ is key to expanding international higher education in Australia and worldwide, says Merlin Crossley

July 27, 2017
Source: istock

With more budget cuts looming, the realisation that Australian universities are locked into a cycle of educational (if not research) expansion is gradually dawning on managers and staff alike. There are big opportunities here – as well as some interesting risks.

Australia is good at providing high-quality education at scale. Many of its campuses accommodate more than 50,000 students. About a quarter of those are from overseas, but domestic students have not missed out. In fact, the funds provided by international student fees have made education both more accessible and better for Australian students.

University leaders are noticing that while domestic markets are saturated, about 90 per cent of the global population still miss out on higher education. Does the ease with which education can be delivered online mean that countries such as Australia can now reach across the world and offer high-quality degrees to those who cannot afford to physically join us, at prices that are affordable to local economies?

The mass-scale “fast” education that first emerged with massive open online courses was akin to snacking at a global fast food franchise. Minimum quality was guaranteed, but the experience necessarily lacked the extended personal interaction that many people want in both a restaurant and a university. Moreover, an isolated hamburger will not get you very far: you need a sustained diet if you are going to properly bulk up for the jobs market.

So could we provide whole degrees at a Mooc-like scale, cost and quality? In other words, to change the metaphor, could we provide flat-pack university degrees to whoever in the world needs a professional leg-up?

The market may well be there, but anyone who has ever struggled with a flat-pack item knows that this, too, is a lonely road. And while there are those who relish the solitary challenge, many of us collapse into misery and despair, dropping out of the whole process amid an overwhelming sense that something – a bolt, a bracket, a helping hand – is missing.

Will universities find a way of expanding into chains that are massive but offer an exceptionally high-quality experience, with a five-star campus in every capital, a porter at the door and Martinis in the bar? Perhaps – but only if we charge the same prices as five-star hotels – and student debt and student fees are already a pressing reality. Most governments, particularly in developing countries, struggle to properly fund compulsory schooling, never mind mass-scale tertiary education.

However education, like hotels, isn’t all about expensive service and decor. It is about the company that it allows its clients to keep. The learning communities are the key to the magic of universities.

A successful launch of mass international expansion will therefore depend on setting up online communities linking students to mentors and to other students. We need to establish virtual teams of teachers as well, and we need to think about retaining purpose for our teachers and fulfilment for our students.

Even then, there will remain a question about whether remote teaching will work for both undergraduate and postgraduate students, or whether undergraduates still need face-to-face teaching while they are maturing in so many ways.

Synchronising activities in real time across the globe will help us build these virtual communities, although online teaching will need to be organised according to time zone. Bringing students to a shared location for short, intensive components of the course may also be vital. But since international students would not need to be in the host country for the entire duration of their degree, the associated living expenses would still be much reduced.

The first university to develop an authentic and rewarding flat-pack online experience for export will have a huge commercial advantage. Of course, that advantage will only last for a while: others will rush to imitate it.

But not everyone will do so. Ultimately, the new world order will reach a new equilibrium, with different universities offering different products: Moocs, flat-pack education in isolation, online virtual communities and what many students are most familiar with currently: elite residential boutique education. While the latter will continue to be affordable to relatively few internationally, we will be doing a lot more for equality in developing countries than we are currently doing if we can get the other offers right.

Merlin Crossley is deputy vice-chancellor (education) at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

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