The cost of university

costHigher Education is changing.  It is no longer a given that young people will look to universities in this country as a default position for their future.  The increasing cost of a degree has inevitably made those seeking the best HE option also seeking the best value for money. 

A piece in The Sunday Times confirms this shift in thinking. It reports that there are signs this country’s universities are becoming part of a global rather than national offering.  The most recent ranking of world universities placed only Oxford and Cambridge in the top 10 universities internationally with 9 British universities making the top 100.  Harvard tops the rankings, illustrating the domination of American universities, so it is inevitable that students in the UK will consider their options.  After all, they are acutely conscious that we live in a globally connected world where future employment opportunities for talented graduates may well be overseas.  A 9% increase in the number of British students crossing the pond over the past 5 years is indicative of this growing interest.

In this context, I reflected on a conversation I had with a Harvard and Yale graduate who recently enjoyed the opportunity to return to a Harvard lecture hall.  Her observation? The almost factory like approach to ensuring students received the same lecture: whilst hundreds were packed into the hall, hundreds more were receiving the lecture through video link.  This was Harvard and this experience cost each student $70,000 per year.

Contrast this with the rise of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) in the States.  This radical approach crosses social and national barriers and does not cost $70,000 per year.  Stanford, MIT and Udacity lead the way in this phenomenon. The rise of MOOC is a truly disruptive force with the potential to be a game changer.  However, as with any innovation, MOOC attracts its dissenters who are quick to see the limitations of this approach.  Pursuing a course independently, disconnected from a collegiate environment, is the antithesis of a university experience.  Dr Keith Devlin, a Stanford Mathematician, has delivered free courses over the past two years to 1000s of people across the world. As such, his observation about MOOC is instructive: “What is becoming clear is that evaluating MOOCs in terms of traditional higher education will prove to be about as useful — and just as misleading — as the early twentieth century pundits who thought of the first automobiles as “horseless carriages.”

So the future of HE promises to be a fragmented offering.  Arguably the level of fees set at UK universities where virtually every institution charges the same, irrespective of what they offer, is not sustainable.   And with universities such as Maastricht boasting modest fees of £1,600 per year seeing an 80% rise in British students, the financial imperative is hugely important in decision making.

What is clear in this changing landscape is that we are moving from a national system where UCAS is the universal portal for application, to a multi layered matrix where the expertise offered by a UK school in supporting its students’ applications to universities overseas will be critical.  Those schools offering this guidance will therefore be well placed to support the ambitions of their students in the future.  Or of course students could enrol on a MOOC.

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