PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: 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 huge disruptions due to the internet so too will the education sector. It will be immensely challenging to existing institutions, but potentially hugely beneficial to Australians. The main force driving change in the education sector is the technological ability to deliver content to anyone, anywhere over the internet at almost zero marginal cost.
For centuries the university model has been premised on a select number of students assembling at a campus to be taught a set course from learned professors. The physical constraints on the system were obvious. A lecture theatre can only accommodate a limited number of students. A top professor has only so many hours in a day. Each university has therefore been restricted to a small number of students to meet these physical constraints. The constraints have also been financial and regulatory. These constraints have created a system which is oriented around the provider. Students have had relatively limited choice of university and must meet the timetable, location and pace of busy professors juggling multiple courses and scarce lecture theatres. With the advent of high-speed, ubiquitous internet access this is set to fundamentally change.
The key aspect is the ability of the internet to separate the students from the physical campus. As ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young suggests, lecture theatre teaching is simply no longer required. He said: ‘Not only is there infinitely more information available in cyberspace, but that information is customisable to individual students,’ meaning that different students can take different paths to reach the same destination. It will not be the case that every lecture goes online in every university, nor will it be the end of face-to-face teaching for many courses. Multiple models will develop.
But the trend towards online will accelerate. Already one in five students does at least part of their course off-campus.
We are at the beginning of the revolution. Online classes will become interactive with problem solving, feedback, and review built into each lesson. The classes will not just be more convenient for students to access, but will be a better learning aid, customised to each student’s needs. Once a student is removed from the lecture theatre, international providers become accessible. Suddenly, instead of students having one or two choices of universities, there could potentially be hundreds. This hyper-competition could include the global brands. Completing macroeconomics from Chicago’s School of Economics could be just as easy as doing it at Deakin.
Online university courses have been around for some time, but with some of the world’s most prestigious universities now entering the space, the pace will increase dramatically. Harvard, MIT, Stanford and others began offering online courses at the start of 2011, the so-called massive open online courses. Almost two million people have already signed up. The enhanced competition from global players will challenge existing institutions but can only be beneficial for students, giving them unprecedented choice, customisation and flexibility.
Government policy needs to change in five ways to capture the full opportunity it presents. First, we need to lower the regulatory barrier for overseas universities to operate courses in Australia. In particular, we should remove the necessity that a university must do research as well as teach. Let the best come in with course offerings and judge them on their performance. Second, TESQA needs to put aside its on-campus mindset and embrace the online environment. As UNE’s Vice-Chancellor, Jim Barber, said, TESQA needs to shift ‘its emphasis from specifying how teaching should be conducted to what teaching should achieve.’
Third, public subsidies should follow the student, rather than only go to Australian public providers. If a course is accredited, then the student should be able to access the public subsidy. The nationality, ownership structure, and method of delivery should be irrelevant. Fourth, universities should be allowed to differentially price, even within a single degree. This could include customised prices for extra staff contact, or pricing for two years’ worth of courses over one year—if the student can cope. Finally, government funding levels need to be examined again. The government has just reviewed the base funding required to deliver courses, but it is entirely rooted in traditional methods of delivery. We should model the costs of online or partially online content provision, which, at least in the medium term, should be cheaper.
We have 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 increasing demand from Asia through our own online offerings are enormous, as my colleague Andrew Robb has outlined.
The key for Australia and its students, however, is not whether we produce the courses, but whether we can access the best courses available at competitive prices.