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Embracing distance learning

How can universities increase their student numbers without increasing their physical campus?

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | May 18, 2016 | Technology

By Geoff Webster, Managing Director at CEG Digital, the blended learning division of Cambridge Education Group 

Even before the reforms of the Coalition government put the financial risk of recruitment onto the shoulders of individual universities, competition for students both local and international has been fierce. In recent years this challenge has been compounded by a UKVI Authority which seems determined to end the UK’s long tradition of academic openness and the rising attractiveness of other destination countries. 

Within the UK, the opening of the ‘market’ for undergraduate students from September 2016, rising student expectations (students are, in fact, customers), and the fall in part-time study has compelled universities to focus on differentiation in an attempt to maintain their market share. How can these institutions create a position within the HE landscape that is sustainable in the long term?

Two major opportunities stand out. On one hand, the Government’s recent expansion of non-means tested postgraduate loans (worth up to £10,000 apiece) could revitalise domestic graduate study at English universities. On the other, global demand for higher education remains buoyant, forecast to more than double to 414 million by 2030 from 165 million in 2013, presenting a global supply shortfall that cannot be met by traditional means – and one the UK has historically embraced. Addressing both of these opportunities at scale would propel the UK HE sector into a far happier place. 

With the availability of loans, a straightforward expansion of postgraduate study can be expected. However, it faces several limiting factors. Prices of postgraduate study will need to reflect costs, and the full-time student market is limited to those who are willing to forgo employment for a substantial period of time, possibly also facing costs of relocation in order to study their chosen course.

On the supply side, more traditional full-time students require more physical capacity, presenting few opportunities to increase efficiency. The opening of the loan scheme to part-time students will naturally be limited in impact as traditional part-time study requires frequent access to campuses on a semi-fixed schedule – limiting markets to universities’ immediate geographical area. 

Globally, in order to diversify revenue streams, universities have typically had two levers to pull – attract high-value international students to traditional on-campus study, or widen their addressable market by looking at innovative forms of delivery

Globally, in order to diversify revenue streams, universities have typically had two levers to pull – attract high-value international students to traditional on-campus study, or widen 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 most headline-grabbing policy of recent years has been the fashion for building campuses in far-flung outposts, planting the university flag to capture new markets in key geographies: mainly local students in the Middle East and South East Asia. The vast sums of capital required, the inherent financial and reputational risks and the mixed performance of these ‘transnational campuses’ make the realities a sobering tale.

The third option has been to step into the new area of distance delivery. Historically the preserve of specialised institutions and recently rocked by the scandals of American for-profit universities, distance delivery has truly come of age with the maturity of online technologies and their associated pedagogy, and the successes of early pioneers such as the University of Manchester’s Global MBA.

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 borne by entirely new markets. 

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 borne by entirely new markets

For the student, in an era of ever-increasing mechanisation and job insecurity, it offers the chance to study world-leading degrees without leaving their jobs, homes or families, enhancing their careers and lives at a reasonable cost. 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 a quality education for a good price. 

The choices for institutions are two-fold: whether to take the strategic plunge, and if so, how. Despite established universities proving global distance learning can work at scale, 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 to that end recent work in the USA and the UK suggests that senior academics are more comfortable with the potential of blended learning, which provides for 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 intensive face-to-face faculty-led sessions at the home campus or at conveniently-located regional hubs around the world.

Once universities have embraced the idea, operationalising is the next critical step – to succeed, the content creation and production, marketing, recruitment and delivery of blended learning programmes must each be approached with the requisite expertise and resource.

Sufficiently large institutions, with executive focus, financial and personnel resources to match their ambition, will be able to do this themselves, but other institutions – or those with a smaller appetite for risk – may look to 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 new, exciting waters without taking inordinate financial or reputational risks. One innovative example of this approach is CEG Digital, the blended learning division of Cambridge Education Group, which launched in January and has already partnered with Falmouth University and the University of Southampton to create, produce, market and deliver a portfolio of 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. 

W: www.cambridgeeducationgroup.com

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