An Expensive Education

Matilda Gosling

4 August 2013

In higher education, there exists a so-called ‘iron triangle’ consisting of access, quality and cost. The assumption is that improvements in one area must lead to a deterioration in one of the other areas - if big gains are made in the area of quality, for example, costs will increase. Research published this week in the United States examines whether this iron triangle can, in fact, be broken. Josh Jarrett, the report’s author and a Deputy Education Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, suggests that there are three emerging areas which may challenge its cause-and-effect nature:

     •     Using new technology to incorporate cheaper, and more effective, ways of learning.

     •     Using e-planning (a) to support students in making better choices about module selection and (b) to support university staff in making the best available use of classroom availability and lecturers’ time.

     •     Radical changes to delivery and cost structures, which include significant increases in scale together with per student cost targets of $5,000 a year or less.

The first of these points reflects an important change in the way that higher education is being delivered globally. Traditional lectures are expensive to deliver: they require physical space and a dedicated member of staff, who often needs to repeat lectures to different student groups. While online lectures receive criticism for a lack of student-student and student-staff interaction, they are unarguably cheap: lectures need only be delivered once (and updated annually), and they can be watched multiple times by students with the necessary physical infrastructure limited to a computer and a decent bandwidth.

Decent computer modelling to plan course selections, staff time and classroom space is at an early stage of development, but early testing is proving to be successful. Jarrett points to the example of Arizona State University’s e-Advisor system, which allows administrators to plan up to a year ahead, and to make the best use of both physical space and staff time. The system also predicts which students will require additional support to stay on their chosen courses, which has led to 91% of students being deemed ‘on track’ in 2010. In 2007, this was just 22%.

The controversial part of Jarrett’s final report is in its assertion that changes to delivery and cost structures can enable radical changes in programmes’ performance, including $5,000 or less per year in student price and institutional costs. According to Jarrett, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with other institutions and are challenging institutions to find models which deliver these costs, alongside other challenging performance metrics.

OECD data suggests that the average per student cost in tertiary education is over $29,000; even in the UK, where we have traditionally much lower per student costs, the figure is more than $16,000. This $5,000 target therefore seems like an extraordinary figure. Common features of the models being adopted by institutions include assessment of prior learning, progression based on competency, peer-to-peer learning, better targeting of resources and online or blended delivery of learning. Can these really reduce average per student costs by more than four fifths? There is no evidence in Jarrett’s report to say that they can; the key word here seems to be ‘target’.

While the UK’s higher education sector is structurally very different from that of the United States, it needs to meet similar challenges in terms of access, quality and cost. These challenges are compounded by radical changes to the funding landscape, with reduced public funding and increased  (although publicly capped) contributions from individuals. Contributors to the Guardian’s Future of Higher Education Summit 2013 generally thought that online delivery was a rapidly growing area which was likely to become part of universities’ core offer in future years.

The public debate around university costs has tended to be on the side of the student - on the nature (tuition fees, graduate tax or general taxation) and size of individual contributions. The debate needs to include student costs from the perspective of the institution, or how universities can reduce per student costs without compromising the quality of delivery. It is in the public interest to ensure that the next generation of students is being effectively educated while at the same time ensuring universities’ long-term financial sustainability. Online education seems, now, a given as part of a broader course offer; it may now be time to start looking at other ways in which technology can support tertiary education.

© The Research Base 2017