Australian Financial Review,
Our higher education sector is set for a massive transformation whether we like it or not. Just as the newspaper and retailing industries are facing disruptions due to the internet, so will the education sector. It will be challenging to existing institutions but potentially hugely beneficial to Australians – if we get the policy settings right.
For centuries, the university model has been oriented around the provider. Students have had limited choice and have had to meet the timetable, location and pace of busy lecturers juggling multiple courses and scarce lecture theatres.
Our entire funding and regulatory system has been built around this model.
With the advent of high speed, ubiquitous internet access, this is set to change profoundly.
The key factor is the ability of the internet to separate the student from the physical campus. Once this separation occurs, multiple providers can become immediately accessible. Instead of students having one or two choices of universities, there could be potentially hundreds, including the global brands. Completing macroeconomics from Chicago’s School of Economics could be just as easy as doing it at UNSW. And they could do it at their own pace, fitting it around their work and family commitments.
Not every course in every university will go online. Multiple models with develop and face-to-face teaching and collaborative learning will remain in most cases. But the trend towards online is accelerating. In the United States, Harvard, MIT, Stanford and others have started offering free online courses and have captured two million participants in two years. In Australia, one in five students already does at least part of their course off campus.
The enhanced competition and capabilities would give unprecedented choice, flexibility, and customisation to students.
This is a revolutionary time in university history, but the full benefits for Australian students can only arise if government adjusts its policy settings. Five changes are necessary.
First, the national university regulator, TESQA, needs to put aside its on-campus mindset and embrace the online environment. As UNE’s Vice Chancellor Jim Barber has said, TESQA needs to shift “its emphasis from specifying how teaching should be conducted (input standards) to what teaching should achieve (outcome standards).” Focusing exclusively on input standards can stifle innovation and keep costs high. In the United States, accreditation has become more focused on learning outcomes and more accepting of online delivery. It needs to happen here also.
Second, we need to lower the regulatory barrier for the best overseas universities to operate courses in Australia, either on a stand-alone basis or in partnership with domestic institutions. In particular, we should remove the necessity that a university must do research as well as teach in every field. Let the best come in with course offerings and judge them on their performance. This would also allow Australian institutions to concentrate on what they do best, whether that is just research in certain fields or just teaching.
Third, universities should be allowed to differentially price (within the HELP student loan scheme), even within a single degree. The internet age will enable a proliferation of learning models. Individuals should have the option of determining which best suits them for the costs involved.
Fourth, public subsidies should support a learning outcome, rather than be determined by the type of institution a student attends and structure of course. If a course is accredited, then a student (within reason) should be able to access a limited public subsidy. The method of delivery or ownership structure should be irrelevant. The education outcome should be the policy objective, not the education process.
Finally, learning should be able to be accessed more cheaply. The government has just reviewed the base funding required to deliver courses, but it was entirely rooted in traditional methods of delivery. Over the medium term, there is potential to significantly reduce the costs of learning in many courses from online provision. For example, the American National Centre for Academic Transformation has helped reduce course costs by an average of 37 percent in dozens of universities without compromising learning outcomes. Both students and taxpayers are beneficiaries if quality courses can be delivered more cheaply. It also means more opportunities for others.
None of these policy suggestions are straightforward and each would be challenging for many existing institutions. But the internet revolution is not going away and we need to start the discussion around how to maximise its benefits. Australia has exceptionally good public universities and there is no reason why they cannot adapt and remain the dominant players, not just in Australia, but throughout Asia. The opportunities to capture the rapidly growing demand for education services from Asia through our online offerings are enormous, as my colleague Andrew Robb has outlined.
The key for Australia and its students, however, is not whether we produce each and every course, but whether Australians can access the best available learning at competitive prices.
Alan Tudge is the Federal Member for Aston and a Member of the House of Reps Education & Employment Committee.