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Distance learning in troubled times

Thu 9 Mar 2017 < Back to listing

Universities should take a strategic plunge and have faith in distance learning advancements says Geoff Webster, MD of Cambridge Education Group Digital

 

So how can UK institutions innovate and diversify to thrive in these troubled times? There are only two ways: take greater market share and open new markets. One of these is the global, part-time, flexible market – attractive to both UK and international students in fact, but currently underserved by the UK higher education (HE) sector.

 

Competition for students in the UK and internationally has always been fierce – but the current rhetoric around the domestic demographic drip, the fall in part-time study and the uncertainty created by Brexit have increased concern among UK universities about recruitment figures this year and in the future.

Globally, to diversify revenue streams, universities have attracted high-value international students to traditional on-campus study or widened their addressable market by looking at innovative forms of delivery. As the former reaches saturation, limited by the high cost of living, the difficulty of obtaining visas, available physical infrastructure and capital constraints, exploring other options has grown in importance.

The good news is that the UK remains one of the most respected destinations for international students. Over a million students undertake British degrees on campus and around the world global demand for HE remains buoyant, forecast to more than double to 414 million by 2030 from 165 million four years ago. However, what this also means is that the global supply shortfall can’t be met by traditional delivery.

Coming of age

Recent technological developments are enabling new approaches to meet this growing demand. UK universities are paying attention to learning technologies, driven by existing distance learning initiatives and the development of Massive Open Online courses (Moocs). The acceptance of Moocs by many leading UK universities has successfully challenged the perception that online education is harmful to their brand, while the challenges in monetising universities’ substantial investments in Moocs has encouraged them to investigate financially and educationally sustainable ways of deploying these technologies.

Historically the preserve of specialised institutions, distance delivery has truly come of age with the maturity of online technologies and their associated pedagogy. The successes of early pioneers such as the University of Manchester’s part-time global MBA, which is delivered online and via face-to-face workshops in Manchester, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Sao Paulo, only reinforce the validity of this approach. There is demand for distance learning from international students, particularly in emerging markets. These might be mature students, professionals in work who want to up-skill, and those who cannot undertake the financial cost of a year abroad or those unable to obtain a visa.

Challenges remain

However, challenges remain for most UK universities in reaching new markets, sustaining pedagogical study at scale and maintaining financial viability for both the university and student. Breaking free from the traditional part-time paradigm, the promise of modern distance learning is the ability of high-quality universities to deliver to students around the world on a flexible schedule, without requiring large capital investment in facilities or housing, at a cost that can be born by entirely new markets.

For the student, it offers the chance to study world-leading degrees without leaving their jobs, homes or families. The breadth and depth of available markets will allow a wide range of institutions with their own specialisms to draw upon different markets for particular programmes, avoiding much direct conflict that has recently characterised the sector. Of course competition will remain, but with a widened market both locally and globally and the ready availability of robust technology, focus can return to providing affordable high quality education.

The choices for universities is whether to take the strategic plunge, and if so, how. Optimising the student experience around this new mode of delivery is a learned art, and thus a risk. Addressing the perceived quality gap is crucial to compelling engagement within universities, and the sector appears more comfortable with the potential of blended learning which provides closer control over the student experience and helps institutions differentiate. In this context, blended learning means predominately online delivery supported by tutors, punctuated at regular intervals with face-to-face faculty-led sessions at the home campus or at conveniently-located regional hubs worldwide.

Sufficiently large institutions will be able to do it themselves, but other institutions – or those with a smaller appetite for risk – may look to invest in public-private partnerships to share the risk and enable access to these new markets. The partnering model seems an ideal way for universities to dip their toes into these waters without taking inordinate financial or reputational risks.

At CEG Digital, we partner with Falmouth University, University of London International Programme, Queen Mary University of London and University of Southampton to deliver blended learning postgraduate and CPD programmes.

The alternatives are thin: to continue to focus on the red waters of traditional students, or to invest large sums of fixed capital in more and more physical capacity with a barely distinguished product. It is clear though, that this type of approach to teaching and learning is fast becoming the norm among top UK (and many Russell Group) universities. For UK universities, it’s not so much ‘if they will’ but ‘when they will’ invest in it.



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