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The Future of Universities


In recent years, the cost of tertiary education has risen astronomically. Many students have been forced to take out loans to finance their studies. Unfortunately the job market for graduates is weak; quite a number are unable to find jobs, and are therefore unable to repay their loans. Unless universities can reduce their fees, the number of applicants will continue to decline.

Let us look at what some older universities are doing to increase their revenue. Lured by Middle East and Asia’s demand for higher education, many international universities have set up overseas branches, hoping to capture some of this educational market.

For example, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts opened a branch in Singapore in 2007. But yesterday came the shock announcement that it will be closing down in 2014, In April 2007, the University of New South Wales opened a branch in Singapore, but in June, barely two months later, it closed shop. The enrolment of students at these two universities was too low to sustain their survival. One of the reasons is that the fees were too high, and they had therefore priced themselves out of the market.

There is a new development that threatens to sound the death-knell of traditional universities, It is known by the acronym MOOC. This stands for "massive open online courses".

Courses in science, engineering, and the humanities delivered by the world's best professors are now available online for free or nearly free. Already millions of learners are studying at Coursera, Udacity, and EdX, or downloading lectures from iTunes U(niversity).

Paid courses are available from accredited online universities: Britain's Open University, University of Phoenix, Post University, Kaplan University Colorado Technical University, American Intercontinental University, and Ashford University, These universities award legitimate degrees, and they cost far less than conventional universities.

It is predicted that MOOCs and online universities will revolutionize current tertiary education. Students unable to afford the older established universities will turn to these cheaper alternatives.

The advantages of online learning are that the lecturers can be some of the best in the world. The talks are often illustrated with first-rate graphics, videography, animation, and interactivity. Students can study at their convenience, at their own pace, and they can replay the talks. Some of the institutions even allow for online interaction with the lecturers. One professor can address millions of students, indefinitely.

The major disadvantages are that there is lack of live face-to-face interaction with the tutors, and for science and engineering subjects, there may be no practicals using laboratory equipment. This problem can be solved by having students attend on-campus practical courses.

I think that online tertiary education is already a reality, and is expanding at a breakneck pace. It will lead to the demise of many traditional universities, in the same way that technology has disrupted printed books, CDs and DVDs.

To delay the expiry of conventional universities, perhaps they should adopt the philosophy: "if you can't beat them, you join them". To save cost, lectures can be recorded and watched online. Only star professors need deliver their lectures live. Students enrolled in that university can reside and study anywhere in the world, and maybe they are only required to attend campus practicals for a few weeks annually. It is conceivable that prestige universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, might be tempted to increase their enrolment to millions of students. This will not only generate more revenue, but the efficiency will drastically reduce the cost of education.

I predict that this will be the brave new world of MOOC!

Kenneth Lyen
10 November 2012