British universities face an online avalanche


Online Universities like The Open University is attracting more and more students, leaving the traditional universities in despair. Photo: Simon Hoffmann Petersen

Online Universities like The Open University is attracting more and more students, leaving the traditional universities in despair. Photo: Simon Hoffmann Petersen

A number of British universities could be facing closure, if they don’t adapt their methods of teaching to the 21st century, states a new report on the future of higher education. The threat is online universities.

By Simon Hoffmann Petersen

An Avalanche is Coming

Avalanche logo

  •  “An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead” is an essay that touches upon the future of higher education, and the challenges that universities, governments and even students face, in regards to the education system.
  • Reception of the report has been very mixed, and has been accused of lacing any arguments of real substance. Read David Kernohan’s blogentry about the report HERE.
  • Published: March 2013
  • Published by: Institute for Public Policy Research
  • Authors: Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rivzi
  • Download: HERE

England, United Kingdom: – The certainties of the past are no longer certainties. The models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th Century are broken. (…) Just as globalisation and technology have transformed other huge sectors of the economy in the past 20 years, in the next 20 years universities face transformation.

So clear is the message in the recent report “An avalanche is coming”, that was published last month by the Institute for Public Policy Research. And the recent report is not the only one to raise concern about, whether the universities of the United Kingdom are up-to-date. The British minister of Universities and Science, David Willets, have questioned whether the “classic model” of a traditional campus university is enough to satisfy the rise in demand of higher education, both within the United Kingdom, but also from European students coming to the United Kingdom. At the Guardian Higher Education Summit in February this year, the minister said, that:

– Online learning is going to be a big thing, very significant, when you look at the hunger for higher education.

According to the report, the global competition from online universities and mass online open courses (MOOC’s) could lead to students seeping from the least prestigious universities, in favour of their online counterparts.

Michael Barber, one of the authors of the report, says there is simply too many universities doing the same thing, and that this avalanche will see some middle-ranking universities closing, he stated to BBC News last month.

The new – or maybe not so new – player on the market is online teaching institutions as the well-known, Khan Academy, The Open University and the online University of Phoneix.

Study as you please
Distance learning is no new phenomenon. At The Open University, based in England, they have offered students the freedom of studying from home or work for more than 40 years. Back then only around 30,000 were enrolled into the university that broadcasted its lectures on BBC late at night, for the students to video record and watch at a later time.

With the 1990’s came the internet, and as a result the Open University moved most of its course material online. This only expanded the amount of freedom of the studying, allowing students to hand it material by a click of the mouse and watch online lectures from their hotel room on vacations. The number of enrolled students boomed, and today more than 250,000 students – from twentysomethings to grandmothers of 70 – are studying with The Open University. Actually, most of the students are probably closer to 70 than to 20, according to Rachel James, Media Relations Officer at The Open University.

– We are very unlike any other university, as most of our students are actually working full time, and are in generally a lot older than your average British university. They might have kids and families to take care of as well, and are choosing to study part time – early mornings, after work, in weekends. We provide the material, but they themselves plan their studying, so it takes a lot of self-dependence and self-control to study and that speaks to the more mature students, she says.

The Open University


  • Motto: Learn and Live
  • Students enrolled: 253,075
    • Undergraduates: 195,300
    • Postgraduates: 15,726
  • Established: 1969 (oldest distance learning centre in the world)
  • Students from: All over the United Kingdom and through most of Europe
  • Qualifies for degree: Yes
  • Courses: Everything besides medicine
  • Campus: Milton Keynes, England

New challenges await
According to Director of Learning and Teaching at The Open University, Niall Sclater, the physical Universities have a lot to learn from online learning institutions.

– The students of 2013 are busy with a lot of other things than just their education. They might do an internship on the side, they could have a study-related job or even trying their luck with entrepreneurship. Why force them into a classroom at Tuesday at 11am, if they just as well could do it at 12am or Tuesday morning or even Saturday night?, he asks.

– Besides, a lot of the institutions are spending so much of their budget on student housing and lecture halls, instead of spending it on actual educational material. We invest a lot of money and man power in making our material state of the art. We don’t have to pay teachers to teach, since the student’s do that themselves. We use our “teachers” for making the finest lectures with videos, texts, computer programs and audio. And students rarely have to print anything, or buy a copy of an actual book. We have almost all of our material published on e-readers, Kindles and iPads, Niall Sclater says.

And the universities should adapt, if they don’t want to face closure in the immediate future. According to the report, higher education is facing a global revolution, an avalanche started by the online universities that are popping up – primarily in America and Europe.

According to Niall Sclater, Director of Learning and Teaching at The Open University, the traditional universities could learn a lot from the distance learning institutions. Photo: The Open University

According to Niall Sclater, Director of Learning and Teaching at The Open University, the traditional universities could learn a lot from the distance learning institutions.
Photo: The Open University

– Competition between universities around the world has been intensifying for decades, and now they fight for talent and research funding (…) A new phase of competitive intensity is emerging as the concept of the traditional university itself comes under pressure and the various functions it serves are unbundled and increasingly supplied, perhaps better, by providers that are not universities at all. Thinktanks conduct research, private providers offer degrees (…) and Massive Open Online Courses (like courser and Khan University, red.) can take the best instructors global, says the report.

Regular university vs. The Open University

 Regular universityThe Open University
Accredited (can award degree)YesYes
Maximum of studentsYesNo
Tuition fees€ 10,500€ 5,800
Avg. age of undergrads2131
Offline examinationYesYes
Avg. time spent on courses3 years6 years
Drop out rates22%50%
Admission requirementsYesNo - open to all

Still a need for campuses
But even though a lot of good comes from the online universities and the MOOC’s, they couldn’t replace all of the 90 physical universities. Not at this time at least, according to Niall Sclater.

– With the nature of the online education institutions – the freedom – it is of course much easier to pull the plug and quit studying, since you are not on an actual campus, and thus not making a big circle of acquaintances to keep you going. Every online University is battling higher dropout rates, than the physical Universities, says Niall Sclater.

At the Open University up to 50 per cent of the students dropout through a complete degree programme, while the dropout rate at the MOOC-site Coursera is estimated to be more than 95 per cent. The fact that Coursera offers no recognised qualification, and the fact that it is free makes it that much easier to drop out, but on the other hand, the average course is no longer than 6 weeks, and doesn’t take a great deal of effort to follow.

Another reason the online universities will hardly overtake the traditional universities are of course the need for hands-on practice in a number of courses. And Niall Sclater recognises that.

– I know for a fact, that I wouldn’t like to have a brain surgery from a doctor just out of an online university that never had any actual practice in a teaching environment or at a clinic. So of course we still need the physical universities, but I believe we will see a lot more students, taking on online education.

Most famous Distance Learning Institutions (University level)

The Open University1969250,000679Yes
Kaplan University1937 (2006 online)66,000256Yes
Liberty University Online197180,000160Yes
University of Phoenix1976 (1989 online)300,000Not availableYes
Coursera20123.3 million337No
Khan Academy2006Unknown (No registration needed)None (but 4,000 mini lectures)No