Sunday, February 18, 2024

Australia Can Offer Low Cost Online International Education and Premium On-campus at the Same Time

In a recent preprint, Heller and Leede (2024) find that the third of Australian university students who are on-campus international tend to come from high GDP countries. The researchers propose that instead Australia provide low cost online education for the benifit of developing nations of the region. While well meaning, I suggest Heller and Leede, need to consider how to make such a strategy palatable to the Australian Government, which would need to fund the strategy, and the Australian universities, which would need to implement it. The Australian Government has a brief to aid its own citizens, not those of other countries. Why would Australia voluntarily give up billions in export dollars from one of its major industries, and forego cherry picking the best and brightest minds of the region? Why would Australian universities give up a large part of their funding? Is there any reason why Australia should cut the price of this export commodity, and not others, such as wheat? 

I suggest, as hard as it is, it is possible to make a case for low cost online courses. Part of that case is geopolitical. Australia is competing for influence in its region. Since the days of the cold war, one way to compete has been with education. Under the Colombo Plan, Australia offered education to make influential friends in the region. A second argument is economic. One way to maximize revenue for sale of a commodity is to sell the same thing at different prices to different customers. This has been achieved by Australian supermarkets selling goods at higher prices in metropolitan areas through small boutique stores. It is also achieved by online retailers, who can set a different price for each retailer. Those offering services al often offer discounts for pensioners, ostensibly as an act of charity, but also because it is better to sell the product at a lower price that not at all to someone who can't afford a higher price. 

Australia could adopt a differential pricing strategy for students based on an ability to pay. This could be done first of all by offering low cost online courses. While online courses offer the same educational outcomes as face to face courses, they are perceived to be inferior. Also while the same course offered with the same staffing level costs about the same to deliver, they are perceived to be cheaper. As a result, Australia could offer low cost online courses, without significantly cannibalizing its on-campus enrollments. 

Australia did run the "Virtual Colombo Plan" (VCP), a $230M Australian Government/World Bank initiative from 2001 to 2006, for on-line education in developing nations (Curtain, 2004 and McCawley, Henry and Zurstrassen, 2002). The VCP ended in 2006 with little ceremony, but it did help fund the African Virtual University.

Tom Worthington addressing the
Computer Society of Sri Lanka
National IT Conference 2018 
In 2018, in a presentation in Colombo,  I suggested countries of the Indo-Pacific could jointly educate professionals using mobile devices, in to counter the influence of China's Belt and Road Education Plan. I provided more details in a formal paper (Worthington, 2018). Rather than creating free courses, dependent on intermittent foreign aid programs. I suggested that allied educational institutions, and entrepreneurs, could be assisted to set up not-for-profit, and for-profit programs.


Heller, R. F., & Leeder, S. R. (2024, January 2). A population perspective on international students in Australian universities.

Worthington, Tom. Blended Learning for the Indo-Pacific. In Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering (TALE), 2018 IEEE 7th International Conference on. IEEE. url

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