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Saturday, 15 August 2015

Will UK students look to free online higher education?

When it comes to the cost of university, there is little for Britain’s young people to celebrate at present.

Tuition fees could increase again at institutions which can demonstrate excellent teaching, and the maintenance grants that many students view as a lifeline are set to be scrapped.
 
With such a bleak financial landscape in front of them, there is a question of whether students will begin to look for alternatives to traditional British universities.
 
UK students have a number of options available to them, ranging from looking abroad for countries with lower tuition fees, to forgoing university altogether and opting for an apprenticeship or school leaver programme.
 
One option that has the potential to flourish in this new environment of high fees and student distrust is online and open access based higher education.

"I think it’s a great means of liberation for people who don’t have any means of getting on from where they are."
Sir Colin Lucas

On the surface, many might be quick to dismiss such systems, saying they will never be a match for a physical university. Furthermore, for the most part, online or open access higher education systems are meant as alternatives, to provide an option for those without access to traditional higher education, due to deprivation or other circumstances.

However, with growing costs from both tuition fees and living, in addition to grants being scrapped, the number of UK students who feel they fall into the category of not having access is growing.

Earlier this week, research from The Student Room revealed that the number of students seriously worried about debt and living costs has doubled in the past two years.
The survey was conducted before the announcement that maintenance grants are being scrapped, and more than half of respondents at the time said the announcement would force them to seriously consider whether they could afford university. A further fifth said university is now out of the question entirely.
Online providers will not displace established institutions  Photo: Getty Images
However, for those students, the online route does not have to be a second rate option.
The up and coming breed of online learning offers its own distinct advantages to try and make up for the shortcomings of not physically attending a university.

One example is UoPeople (University of the People), which is a non-profit, tuition free online university.

Although MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), which have reportedly grown enormously in the past two years, do not lead to a degree, UoPeople is fully accredited in its own right to award degrees.

The California headquartered university is predominantly aimed internationally at those who otherwise wouldn’t have access, but they have noticed a growing body of British students amongst their numbers, which they expect to continue.

The university may lack established heritage, but has relationships with New York University, Yale University, and other partners such as the United Nations, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard.
They are tuition free and the only costs are a $50 application fee plus $100 per exam taken, with assistance available for those who fall short. Despite scepticism, the university is set to become financially sustainable next year, based on these fees.

Entry requirements are minimal, and although students need internet access on a regular basis, they don’t require broadband as the learning is text, email and discussion board based, with downloads to work offline available.

UoPeople president and founder, Shai Reshef, said: “What we are doing is building a model to show that higher education can be affordable and accessible.

“We want to open the doors wide, to make it affordable, but make sure that those who graduate from us find a job, because those that come to us don’t come to us to have general study, they come to us in order to have a better chance for a better future.

“We’re building the model to show universities that they can take many more students than they do right now. Many of them don’t want to, because.... they want to be exclusive.”
Girl at laptop in cafeOnline courses can be worked on anywhere  Photo: Getty Images
UoPeople has already crossed the accreditation hurdle, but industry and market validation will be the final stamp of approval.

Mr Reshef said: “We know how good we are, but that's not enough.

“I know that right now all of our graduates work, but I think in the long term, people will look at graduates of higher education and see how they compare to those from other institutions, and that will be the final stamp of approval.”

The university is well on its way to such approval. They have an agreement with Microsoft in Africa, in which the company pays for 1,000 students' education, and provides them a mentorship, internship and a job upon graduation.

Following this, Mr Reshef said that “Microsoft came to us and said we are interested in hiring all of your graduates.”

Aside from the academic and employability benefits, Mr Reshef hopes that online platforms can create a space which fosters a more peaceful society: “Every time a student takes a class with us, he is being put together with 20 students from 20 countries."

"We’re building the model to show, first of all the universities, that they can take many more students than they do right now."
Shai Reshef, UoPeople president and founder

Sir Colin Lucas, former University of Oxford vice-chancellor, is a member of UoPeople’s president’s council.

He commented: “I think my hunch is that, for quite a long time now, the standard model of what a university should look like; where it all looked much the same wherever you went....I think that’s all breaking up.

“The question is more where [online education] will fit within that, rather than a straight displacement.
“I think it’s a great means of liberation for people who don’t have any means of getting on from where they are.

“I certainly think that there is a component in the UK population that would benefit from this, and I am sure that we would want to see more people joining us from the UK”
Sir Colin pointed out that the aim shouldn’t be to target “middle order students” seeking a better financial deal: “What I am principally interested in myself, and other members of the board are interested in, is opening up life for people who have been unreasonably prevented from hope.

“I think the advantages are fairly clear. First of all, provided it’s done properly with adequate support, you can have a pretty well tailored instruction, you can have small classes and groups, you can have all the electronic forums..”

“It’s not an isolated experience any more….. the overhead is low and it can therefore be delivered much more cheaply. And you can pace it to suit your own circumstances.”

Sir Colin acknowledges that there are still questions to be asked of this new style of learning: “At its best, teaching is really about an interplay between a teacher and a student.

“There is [also] a question about whether it is scalable. We don't know yet whether it would be possible but I think, if it were, we would want to.”

Mr Reshef added: “We plan to grow and grow and grow until we wake up one day and we realise that all the people that need to be served are being served.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/11790571/Will-UK-students-look-to-free-online-higher-education.html

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