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.