Why not just study for free?

As tuition fees rise across the developed world, often at a pace that significantly outstrips inflation, some are now predicting that the new trend will be to look for higher education remotely, for free. In fact for some time now universities have been making their course content available online. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started the trend 10 years ago, and it now offers 200 courses on its MIT Open Courseware website. Not only can you get free access to programmes from Aeronautics to Writing and Humanistic Studies, but if you complete the online programme you can also get a certificate that you have done so successfully. So, why bother paying $40,732 (the standard MIT undergraduate tuition fee) when you can get the programme and a result for exactly $40,732 less, i.e. for nothing?

Other universities have similar offerings, and indeed there is Apple’s iTunes U that acts as broker of free higher education programmes offered by some of the world’s best universities.

How all this will go may depend a little on how higher education is able to present itself to communities across the world. On the whole, the assumption has been that university programmes have a value based not on their content or available expertise, but on the reputation of their qualifications. A Stanford University degree certificate gets you a better job, or at least a better prospect of one, than one awarded by, say, the University of Northampton. So what the institutions are ‘selling’ is the qualification. But what if society increasingly doesn’t see it that way, and if people come looking for knowledge (in other words, content), and employers for an assurance that this has been acquired (without worrying too much whether it involves a degree)? This will not necessarily mean that open courseware is suddenly all that is needed, but it may mean that the heavily controlled degree programme with its relatively inflexible pathways to a qualification and resulting professional success may lose value.

And if that happens, it may be worth pointing out that the whole funding edifice just created in England may fall apart, because the financial assumptions on which it is based will prove doubtful.

For higher education, these are interesting and unpredictable times.

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11 Comments on “Why not just study for free?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    This past year I’ve been putting in about five hours a week learning the guitar. And while Myers Cavitina http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwvDon1_iKs is safe enough at the moment this won’t always be so.
    I could have done with a course from a place I could believe If for no other reason than to speed things up by preventing me from going down blind alleys. Also, I could have done without being a snob about TAB and feeling like a idiot once I found out that the method of notation is equal if not an older method than the usual stave.
    The problem might be how the measure is taken though. I might give credence to some on-line course from MIT much as I will do so when I look up ailments on the Mayo Clinic site. But how much can you give to Dr’s-r-Us.


  2. Seems to me that the trends are strongly set in the other direction at the moment – status and prestige are getting more important as society (at least in the UK) gets less equal.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Tuition fees are only one (important) issue at play when it comes to HE trends. Just came across this interesting piece ‘Imagining the Future of Higher Education’ by Bryan Alexander which envisages three different scenarios by 2022 driven by what he defines as ‘powerful forces’

    Technological:
    •Mobile computing. The number and power of networked portable devices continue to grow. This includes a plethora of devices, multiple network architectures, and a variety of augmented reality (AR) forms.
    •Digitization. The generations-old move to copy atoms in bits continues, from e-books to maps to lifestreaming.
    •Gaming. This global, nearly universal cultural form not only drives hardware and software design, but is infiltrating daily life under the controversial aegis of gamification.
    •Abundance of content. The growing quantity of material shows no sign of stopping. Some is open. Literacy is increasingly a function of coping with post-scarcity information availability

    and Non-technological:
    •The political crisis over education. Americans are reassessing higher education’s value, with the discussion sharpened by chronic economic stress. Questions of accountability and metrics are raised.
    •Outsourcing. Shifting institutional functions to external agents has accelerated in recent years, after first impacting American life during post-Cold War globalization.

    For details of the scenarios see http://tinyurl.com/codqfgu
    These might be particularly unpredictable times for HE and yet a sense of vision is indispensable to stir change towards educational goals which better serve the interests of the(inter)national communities we serve.

  4. Eddie Says:

    “And if that happens, it may be worth pointing out that the whole funding edifice just created in England may fall apart, because the financial assumptions on which it is based will prove doubtful”

    It does not cost to indulge in SNP-like fantasy!


    • This has nothing to do with the SNP or politics, it is about how a business model is being constructed, and whether that model has identified the relevant market correctly. It may not have.

      • Eddie Says:

        Yes, ofcourse! What does it say, about the RGU lowering of tuition fees to attract English students, based on the “funding edifice” when the edifice is likely to fall apart? Not clever strategy is it, trying to fill the funding gap of the university based on a shaky edifice? Anyway, the MIT opencourseware is around sometime, and stretching it to a fantasy land is amusing indeed! The blog needs article!

  5. David Phipps Says:

    I believe the reason leading universities post lecturesfree on line is not to give away education but to attract top talent (students and faculty. Lectures are only one part of a student’s learning journey. No one watching lectures on line gets a study group supervised by a grad student, office hours with the prof or the joy of discussing or venting about classes on the bus to campus. Great lecutres given by great profs will attract great students willing to pay for a great education. This is not any opinion on the price of tuition but an opinion on the role that video lectures play in a broader university marketing and PR campaign.

  6. Steve Says:

    Suggest UK University Sector steps up several gears or we may see much of our reveunue stream (students) leaving for more cost effective alternatives.

    Recent BBC article may be start of things to come. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15963688

  7. Al Says:

    Isnt it the case that the benefits of a University education havent been clearly stated and that the current attempts at stating the benefits sometimes engage in hyperbole?

    Claims as to knowledge, skill’s, abilities, (choose your own virtue), etc are often left as implicit outcomes. Sometimes, depending on who is speaking, it reminds me of ancient Greek ‘sophistic’ dialogue where the next on stage sets out their stall as to their necessity to the polis….

    I remember a canteen chat one time where a colleague who saw himself as an educator as opposed to a trainer, claimed that he could train monkeys, he couldnt educate them. I replied that I had a degree in boxing and that he better stand back!!!

    To claim knowledge there has to be learning leading to it…
    To claim skills there has to be training to develop it…

  8. Martin Ryan Says:

    Ferdinand, I think MIT will charge a fee for certification, as suggested in this article: http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_MITX?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

    However, this will undoubtedly be lower than $40,732, so your argument still stands. The question “why not just study for free?” reminds me of the classic line from the film ‘Good Will Hunting’ – where Will says:

    “See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f*ck*n’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

    Rather tellingly, the guy on the other side of the argument responds with: “Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.”

    This illustrates why students want to go to elite institutions:

    (i) They get a credential (admittedly, this might start happening in non-conventional ways)
    (ii) More importantly, they can get a credential from a prestigious institution – which could be beneficial for their future earnings, or even just getting access to a certain career that has a lot of job satisfaction
    (iii) They might develop a social network at an elite institution that would also be beneficial for their future earnings
    (iv) They might be instructed by more motivated staff. This argument is primarily for those who care about the quality of their education, irregardless of the prestige-factor. Is there something about a highly-motivated professor leading a class-discussion (in a class composed of highlly-motivated peers) that develops critical thinking in ways that reading a book on one’s own never will?

    Also, the U.S. system is well known for delaying specialisation until graduate school. While this may have the benefit of allowing students to figure out what they want to do, it means that many students may (quite rightly) see a bachelors degree as a pre-requisite for the graduate specialisation that they aspire too.

    P.S. Many people draw attention to the fact that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. We hear similar stories about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. However, the fact that Zuckerberg was able to get into Harvard (and drop out of his own accord) is worth focusing on. He met some interesting people there no doubt, he gives credit to the psycholofy classes he sat through there, and he was able to put “Harvard Dropout” on his CV when trying to get his first funding for Facebook.

  9. kevin denny Says:

    This idea of studying “for free” by accessing on-line materials missess a few obvious points. One is investing in human capital is also consumption whch is economics speak for “college is fun”. How many of us have met friends and partners there?
    More significantly, we learn a huge amount from our fellow students.
    That is one of the great benefits from going to a good university: one is surrounded by smart, hard-working ambitious students. So one of the reasons why a Stanford or Oxford degree is valuable is that you have to be good to get in (and survive). An on-line model accessible to all won’t replicate those features.


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