Sunday, April 11, 2021

Online Education is More Flexible But Not Necessarily Cheaper

David Annand, has asked "How do we make university education more affordable and accessible?". He is a professor at Athabasca University, one of Canada's leading online institutions, but he is not just advocating for abolishing campuses.

Annand suggests face-to-face is needed for some new undergraduate students. He also points out the importance of informal social interactions for these students. However, he questions if this is really worth the cost of the campus and points out that online learners do just as well as face-to-face ones.

I suggest that while online learners do just as well academically, this is missing the point. Study is also a social experience. As an online student of Athabasca myself, I experienced a sense of loneliness. This is despite being a very experienced student, who was also on the staff of a leading Australian university at the time. But even so, online study was a less lonely experience for me than previous face to face study: just because you are on a campus, in a room full of people, doesn't result in social ties.

Athabasca's online courses had forms of group activity built in. Also was not assumed that you would somehow meet other students outside class, with ways to meet people online. 

The assumption that eliminating the campus will make courses much cheaper also needs to be challenged. According to a report for the UK DoE, only about 10% of the cost of a course at a conventional university is the campus (KPMG, 2019). A third of the cost is teaching staff and another third central student service costs. Most of the rest are overheads in running an institution. So eliminating the campus is not going to make courses from a conventional university much cheaper. Ways to provide student services, and reduce other overheads, online might be more cost effective than eliminating the campus. 

Also, even before COVID-19, at least in Australia, most students had voted with their feet and were not attending lectures. Universities campuses were already evolving to be business parks with commercial tenants and leisure centers with fee gyms, bars, and cafes, plus accommodation. The University of Canberra's 2025 plan is an example of this.

Annand points out that there is a high financial and social burden for those remote from a campus. There are also barriers due to child minding and employment. These are the areas distance education, and in its recent form, online education, were primarily developed for and have been delivering to for decades. 

Online students tend to pay about the same fees as on-campus ones, as Annand points out. It did annoy me when a student of the University of Southern Queensland, that I was paying to maintain playing fields which I had never seen, let alone played on. But this was only a small proportion of the fees. As it happens I paid slightly less in Canada, about the amount of the cost of the playing fields. ;-)

Athabasca University has no classrooms, and most staff now work off-campus, Annand points out. However, most teaching at conventional universities was done by part time and casual staff who didn't have their own offices before COVID-19, so their is little scope for savings in this way.

Athabasca University receives a subsidy from the Alberta provincial government, Annand points out, at a rate about a third that of conventional universities. However, those universities may be providing courses where costs are higher, such as medicine. The issue of the applicability of government funding models to online universities is one which has come up in Australia, most particularly at the University of New England (UNE), an institution which has been pioneering distance education for more than 50 years. UNE staff have expressed frustration that the federal funding model limits their ability to provide innovative programs. 

The Australian government did force through a change which increased the cost of less employment related degrees (ironically making some cheaper to provide courses more expensive). So there is some appetite by legislators to use product differentiation for university fees. However, if based just on campus cost, the difference in fees would be small, and the political cost of the reform may not be worth the effort.

Perhaps a better reform to import from Australia would be to provide more funding for shorter programs. In response to the pandemic, the Australian government introduced undergraduate certificates, and  increased funding for graduate certificates. These were focused on areas relevant to the emergency, particularly health, and have proved popular. Universities did previously provided some sub-degree programs, but there was no incentive for them to offer these.

Online universities may do better lobbying government for a different funding model, because they provide superior, more flexible, more vocationally relevant forms of education, rather than focusing on the costs of conventional universities.


KPMG, "Understanding costs of undergraduate provision in Higher Education, Costing study report", UK Department for Education, May 2019, Page 21. URL

No comments:

Post a Comment