New Entrants in the provision of University degrees: Education on the cheap or the biggest shake-up for higher education in our lifetimes?

The traditional route to a University degree has never been more expensive for the student with the recent rise in tuition fees to £9000 per year. This market is now seeing an unprecedented increase in different providers offering degrees. And with this rise comes new ways of delivering degrees. The recent rise in tuition fees to £9,000 per annum has opened the market to private university colleges, challenging the traditional approach to a university education. With the option to fast track degrees over a two year rather than a three year period, the attractive reduction in the cost of a degree makes considerable sense to students as well as to their parents. As a parent myself to two more potential university candidates in the coming years, I am especially interested in how this is all shaping up. I was delighted to have my company chosen as the digital partner in the provision of a new distance degree due to be launched this Autumn. We have always prided ourselves on dealing with pretty complex material for professional learners. This was a natural next step for us. But as a parent, I wonder what choices my two young sons will have available to them in the next few years. Quite a few years ago, I took my post grad. conversion to IT through the Open University. One of the striking comparisons I made at the time was the much higher quality of materials provided by the OU compared to my recent university experience. Universities have been using VLEs (Virtual learning Environments) for quite some years and the open source platform, Moodle, tends to be ubiquitously used for academic supply of learning content for students. The use of the VLE under these circumstances though, tends to be very much in the hands of the individual tutor and there is frequently little consistency across the campus. Distance learning though, is a different environment. There is no teacher in the classroom, so the materials have to speak for themselves. The OU knew this from their earliest days. With the advent of new technologies the expectation of students who have only known the PC and internet age, for whom social collaboration is norm, is very high. The University colleges of the future who can meet this challenge, plus cut the costs of a degree will be way ahead. The prospect of my two boys entering their adulthood with debts of £27,000 in tuition fees alone is not too appetising.  The educational establishment that manages to pull off lower fees with potentially fast tracked routes will be hugely attractive. And it would not have to be distance learning v. campus learning.  For the educationalist to fast track your student, you will need to be able to compliment your traditional tutoring and lecturing with online access to extra tuition time. Another variation on that theme will be the mostly distance provision with much lower attendance but far more intensive tuition. I recall all too well the relatively low number of timed lectures for my degree. Today though, the very short terms plus almost non-existent lectures for my stepson is an eye-opener in comparison. Is this the result of the cuts in higher education? The biggest challenge of all though will be with perception. Can the new entrants truly challenge Oxbridge and the Russell Group? Or will they be seen as degrees on the cheap by students and employers? I hope not. For my children’s sake I hope this is the opportunity to break into new territory and give the traditional route to a valued and valuable higher education a much needed shake-up!