Thursday, February 9, 2017

Regional Campuses and On-line Courses to Lower Cost of University

In "University attendance: cost of living deters low-SES students" (The Australian, 8 February 2017),  Michael Spence, Vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, argues that income-support packages are needed for low-SES students to attend city universities. This is a flawed argument as it assumes students have to go to the city to attend university. Instead I suggest the university should go to the student, via on-line courses, supplemented with regional campuses. This will not only cost the taxpayer less in subsidies, but also provide a superior form of education for most students.

The Vice-chancellor rightly points out that the cost of living is a more significant factor that the cost of university fees for a student in a major city, such as Sydney. In particular regional students will need to pay for somewhere to live in the city. There will be some students who need very specialized and advanced courses which can only be provided at a few city campuses. However, most courses can be provided by on-line learning, supplemented by a regional campus. As a rule of thumb I suggest the typical student should be studying 80% on-line and 20% in a classroom.  The student would need to be in a classroom about one day a month, but could be in the local library or TAFE, not necessarily at a university campus.

By providing the education where the student is, they can live at home, or in low cost regional accommodation and also work while studying. Ideally, students should be studying while also working in a relevant job. Having students spend years studying full time and only then entering the workforce is not a good way to learn work-relevant skills and is also not good for the economy. A very few students will need intensive, full time studies, but most should be apprentices or cadets.

Australian city universities have invested heavily in new classrooms and student accommodation. This will not be needed for domestic Australian students studying on-line and at regional campuses. It may not be needed by international students either, as they will also be increasingly studying on-line. The Australian government needs to consider if the current university building boom, like the apartment boom, is sustainable.

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