The start of autumn has seen the start of the university term for students since time immemorial. This time round of course, the ritual of hauling luggage round the country to the halls of residence has not quite been on the same scale as usual. Some universities, including members of the prestigious Russell Group, are still doing all their teaching on-line. Others are offering “blended learning” — a combination of online and face-to-face teaching.
But as the pandemic becomes increasingly part of everyday life, the pattern of lectures given in-person will surely resume in these deeply conservative institutions.
Or will it? Major shocks such as Covid offer scope for innovators and disruptors.
British students are burdened with increasing amounts of debt. The Treasury is so concerned about the sums which are not being paid off by graduates that the income level below which debt does not have to be repaid may be reduced.
But there seem to be few alternatives to the traditional university three-year, full-time degree with in-person teaching.
The Open University was brought in with much fanfare in the 1960s. Since then, it has done solid work, transforming the lives of many with what was originally known as “distance learning”. It takes longer to acquire an OU degree, the courses are part-time. But students can continue to work and earn money.
Yet the OU has never really targeted the over 18 age group. Its focus has been on adults who, for whatever reason, did not get to university when they were young.
Massive online open courses have grown substantially in the past few years. These do what they say on the tin; they are free online courses available for anyone to enrol.
Some of the world’s top universities such as Harvard and companies like AWS and Microsoft are involved in delivering the courses.
The courses have proved very popular but they are typically short. And although they do usually involve an accreditation for taking them, they have not supplanted the standard methods of delivering university teaching.
But the straws are already in the wind. In the United States, many liberal arts colleges have folded in the past few years. In part this is simply because students are not seeing their degrees as being value for money. But the impact of Covid has intensified the trend.
We might usefully wonder whether students need to attend university in person at all. Courses can clearly be delivered successfully online. It may not be the same as traditional campus learning, but it gets the job done and enables education to be delivered at a different scale.
But universities down the academic ladder are, in the same breath, sowing their demise. Why would people log in to a lecture delivered by a more lowly institution? It’s easier and cheaper to access high quality teachers.
Authors and academics are striking out on their own and creating courses, as well. With the rise of Masterclass a testament to the demand.
The opportunity is clearly there to both reduce the cost and improve the quality of many university courses. If it means some universities going to the wall, few will shed a tear.