‘Online education can help equalise global access to high-quality HE’

Provost Tim Dunne says higher international fees for in-person courses are vital to universities, but online students can be charged the same wherever they live. This article first appeared in Times Higher Education on 25 February 2024.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Nelson Mandela’s stirring message, delivered to a rapturous audience in Boston back in 1990, is often incorporated into campus keynotes by vice-chancellors and other senior leaders. For many, it captures the power and purpose of a university education. Simply put, knowledge is power. Citizens in educated and informed societies are able to make choices, including holding their leaders to account.

In view of the close connection to democratic virtues, education has long been thought of as a right, not a privilege. It should be “equally accessible to all on the basis of merit”, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, agreed in 1948. More recently, the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 sets an even more ambitious target: equal access for all women and men to affordable, high-quality tertiary education. 

Access concerns

According to UNESC, around 235 million students are now enrolled in universities around the world, representing a doubling in the last 20 years. However, that staggering growth masks a multitude of ongoing concerns about access. The world’s poorest still have “hardly any post-secondary education opportunities in low and middle countries”, UNESC says.

For the relatively rich elite in the developing world, the default has been to attend top-ranked institutions overseas. As a consequence, universities and their wider communities in North America, Australia and Western Europe have benefited from a massive cumulative inflow of resources. According to a recent report by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), every 11 international students bring £1 million of net economic impact to the UK.

This spreads knowledge around the world and amounts to a very significant export industry. But the fee differentials between domestic and international students sit uneasily with SDG4’s ambition to apply “stronger non-discrimination policies”. In the UK, on average, international students are paying £13,000 more than their domestic peers; potentially as much as £30,000 more to attend the most elite universities.

The income such elevated fees generate is critical to Western universities’ ability to invest in research infrastructure and to support innovation in teaching. In the UK, it is vital to make up for shortfalls in funding the full cost of research and for the diminishing value of domestic student fees. We can’t do without it. But is there another way of breaking the cycle of advantage that the West has over the rest?

Accessible education pathways

Online learning could be one way. Earlier this month, the University of Surrey announced a collaboration with 2U to develop 15 global master’s degrees, accessed on the ed tech firm’s proven edX platform. Being launched in 2024-25, these will include qualifications in people-centred AI, international business management, psychology, strategic marketing and sustainable development in practice.

Image is for illustrative purposes only.

Neither geography nor citizenship status will be relevant to the opportunity to enrol on these courses, making them more compatible with the SDG goal of providing accessible education pathways. Our partnership with 2U will also include micro-master’s courses as low-cost pathways into global master’s courses, and the fees for these curated postgraduate online programmes will be both affordable and non-discriminatory. Unlike for in-person international education, Students living in Bengaluru, Bangkok and Basingstoke will all pay the same.

In addition, of course, online provision removes the requirement for students to leave their current employment and accommodation, live apart from their families and communities, or undertake expensive and carbon-intensive flights. And this flexibility means that online courses widen access across age groups, as well as borders. Zahir Irani wrote earlier this month of the importance of taking lifelong learning seriously. Specialist online programmes are better suited to meeting this challenge because they can be designed for different audiences with different levels of knowledge and experience.

Modularising degree programmes and allowing students to do those modules at their own pace recognises that education has to fit with different stages in people’s lives and not the other way around. Students enrolled in one of our face-to-face programmes may take some of these micro-master’s in their own time, with a view to enhancing employability as well as personal enrichment.

Even as the environmental challenges bite, and Western governments seek to impose limits on international students, the university sector needs to hold fast to its internationalist heritage. High-quality online postgraduate degree courses, with content designed for learners from different cultures, show that education can be borderless at a time when national policy settings are putting at risk the goal of higher education for all.