The comprehensive spending review, online learning and remote working

Today is the big day. The comprehensive spending review is likely to hit a lot of us where it really hurts. UKOLN – where I work, being funded by HEFCE and based at the University of Bath, is resting on some shaky ground. Last week a leaked email suggested that universities in England will face funding cuts of £4.2bn and although the recent Browne review proposed that there should be no limit on fees charged there is still going to be a big hole in HE finances. Things are not looking good.

But I don’t want to lament about the situation Higher Education finds itself in or get all political on you. There are plenty of opportunities to do that outside of this blog.

Here I want to consider what potential role online learning and remote working could play in HE’s future given that the mission is now to “look after every penny“.

HEFCE recently released a study carried out by the Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford on UK Online Learning. The report’s purpose was to gain a broad overview of the current UK provision of HE level online distance learning (ODL).

Although the report was carried out in a short-time scale it does make many interesting observations. For example there was:

a consensus that in order to strategically expand the provision of high quality ODL courses, a robust institutional infrastructure for developing, delivering and maintaining courses is essential. A key consideration is the extent to which institutions provide central support to facilitate such developments. In many cases, ODL offerings have evolved from a ‘cottage industry’ style approach with developments led wholly at departmental level. While this approach was seen to have many benefits, not least ensuring academic quality and promoting innovation, it was also seen as a challenge and a potential barrier to expanding provision.

Online learning still needs a bit of work…it needs more structure and it needs more support.

But it could help dig HE out of the rather large hole it now finds itself.

Here’s a few observations I’d like to make. They are not based on any evidence per se but I believe them to be true and I believe there will be stats to show this to be the case. I’d be interested in hearing more from those in the know on how true (or not true) they are.

  • Online learning is a lot cheaper than traditional learning approaches (classroom style learning). This could allow you to charge lower fees and be more competitive cost wise.
  • It is more scalable than traditional learning approaches (space is often a big issue at Universities).
  • It is becoming an incresingly attractive option as students often chose to stay at home due to the cost of living. Factor in CPD and overseas students and you can see how the audience for it can grow.
  • It can be more effiecient environmentally, e.g. reduced travel costs.

Add in ‘remote working for research and information staff’ and you have a money-earning, money-saving, environmentally conscious, innovative plan for HEFCE and for individual institutions.

The HEFCE ODL report concludes with some recommendations. One is that:

further market intelligence is gathered to give a clearer picture of the position of UK ODL in an international context. This research should include:
(i) an overview of the overall international market for HE level ODL courses;
(ii) identification of key competitors;
(iii) identification of potential target audiences;
(iv) identification of areas where key UK players plan to expand their activities in the near future;
(v) identification of relevant gaps in the international market that the UK is in a strong position to fill.

This research would make for interesting reading. Online and remote could really be the way forward. Hey, right now we need all the help we can get!


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