These are unnerving times for higher education worldwide. After a four-decade rise in global demand, universities are grappling with powerful forces colliding at once: reduced government support, rising public skepticism about the value of a degree, increased institutional competition and the emergence of disruptive technology. Adding to these pressures is a seismic shift in global demographics. Demand for higher education is levelling off in North America and Europe compared to “huge unmet demand” in emerging markets, according to a September, 2013 forecast by the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. In the United States, the number of high school students is not expected to peak again until 2021, according to the National Centre for Education Statistics, creating excess capacity. By contrast, India will account for one-quarter of 18-22 year olds by 2020, predicts the United Nations, with insufficient university seats to serve them.
By 2020, about 200 million young people worldwide will have degrees — 40 per cent of them elite and middle class students from China and India — according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). By 2025, the number of those travelling abroad for a degree could double from today’s estimate of 4.3 million students. In response, universities are eager to raise their global profile to ensure their long-term financial viability and create a sustainable business model. Public institutions that once relied on government funding and tuition hikes for revenue now are turning to social media, online learning and new credentials to make their mark with international students. “It’s always been about prestige and reputation,” says University of Toronto professor of higher education Glen Jones. “Now with global competition and new media, reputation simply becomes increasingly important and rankings play into that.” With business models in flux, adds Jones, “part of the answer is to find other sources of revenue, which is why reputation becomes such a big factor.”
With ranking-conscious elite universities intent on holding on to their place in the top echelon, middle-ranked institutions will have no easy time climbing the ladder.
“It is very uncertain terrain with serious competition on a worldwide scale,” says Francisco Marmelejo, lead tertiary education specialist at the World Bank. “There will be significant disruption in the way higher education operates and will operate… this is a trend that is unavoidable.”
Using new tools
Historically, universities relied on exchanges of students and faculty to build their overseas profile. Over the past decade, some institutions have added smaller-scale online programmes and built overseas branch campuses (there are now at least 200 worldwide), with mixed success. “There is a history of schools going into countries and a few years later pulling out,” says Andrew Crisp of CarringtonCrisp, a Londonbased education marketing consulting firm. “It is pushing schools to look at more modern methods of raising the brand rather than bricks and mortar.”
At a minimum, “modern methods” translate to smartly designed websites delivering key messages to a target audience. The University of Buffalo (UB), which ranks among the top 20 US institutions for international enrolment, recruits 17% of its 28,000 students from abroad with the help of its site. UB pioneered a “high touch” strategy in the late 1980s that relied on face-to-face meetings with prospective students, and even today is one of a few publicly funded state institutions that travel overseas to meet students and families at recruitment fairs. However, it now competes with scores of schools from the US, the UK, Australia and Canada, says Steven Shaw, assistant vice-provost and director of international admissions. To bolster its face-to-face pitch, the university has revamped its website after spending a year researching what prospective students value most—a safe and welcoming campus, personal connections and a globally-enriched curriculum. “It is not your grandmother’s website,” says Rebecca Bernstein, UB’s director of strategy and online communications. “It is filled with information based on research and needs that will close the deal on international recruiting.”
Schools have also been using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to help them tailor messages to prospective candidates. Increasingly, students themselves are enlisted as virtual ambassadors to sell peers on their institution, responding to granular questions and sharing information based on their own experience. “We now have the technology that allows broader conversations than we have ever been able to have, and that requires paying a lot more attention to the conversation,” says Michael Stoner, president of mStoner, a US higher-education marketing and branding consultancy. On social media, the university initiates a conversation to send out official messages to its target audience while students use the same sites to talk to peers for informal insights on the institution.
“Everything is connected,” says Stoner. “If you are telling kids from China that you are a welcoming community, you had better be able to demonstrate that,” he says. “It is easy enough for students to find out without visiting the campus because they can access social media and find other Chinese students to see what is their experience.”
The MOOC method
Many institutions of higher learning believe that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer a promising way to polish their reputation for innovation and grow beyond their geographical boundaries. Since 2012, these free and mostly non-credentialed courses have attracted more than six million students from around the world.
But the jury is out on MOOCs, not least because their designers have yet to develop a sustainable business model. Despite the “wow” factor of tens of thousands of students signing up for a single MOOC, participation and completions are low, according to early evaluations. And contrary to initial forecasts, a July 2013 survey by the University of Pennsylvania found that the majority of those who signed up for a MOOC already had a college degree. In developing countries, participants were more affluent and better educated than the general population. Still, a number of small and mid-size institutions see the potential to secure a following by offering specialty courses in a MOOC format or to embed them as part of on-campus campus-based and online courses. The first wave of MOOCs helped to burnish the reputations of the top universities, and institutions continue to use the online courses to promote their brands. Britain’s Open University, with a 40-year history of distance learning, established Future Learn last year as the first UK MOOC platform, working with more than 20 top UK universities, the British Council, the British Library and the British Museum. “Universities see themselves as global players,” says Mike Sharples, academic lead for Future Learn. “They want to show the world the quality of their teaching and learning material to attract students to degree courses.” The University of Alberta, a top-five Canadian institution, invested US$314,000 in a high-production value MOOC to build awareness of its international reputation in paleontology research. The course attracted 20,000 participants when it started in September 2013. “As long as the MOOC is aligned with that [reputational strategy], it clearly gives us a way to talk about the U of A that we didn’t have before,” says Debra Pozega Osburn, vice-president for university relations for U of A. “Now we have several thousand people all over the world who know the university and didn’t before.”
A number of universities are moving beyond using MOOCs to build their brand awareness by creating programs to convert leisure MOOC learners into enrolled students. Earlier this year, the University of London (with 54,000 online learners and 70,000 on campus) offered four MOOCs through Coursera, attracting 210,000 registrants from more than 160 countries. Five more are scheduled for 2014. “If we can convert some of those students and make them aware of [our] international programmes, then that is a business model that makes sense to us,” says Michael Kerrison, director of academic development for University of London International Programmes.
MOOCs may become an integral part of higher education, but some question their staying power. “It is way too soon to tell,” says Allan Goodman, president of the US Institute for International Education. “I would have expected MOOCs to be taking campuses by storm and they aren’t yet.” But what they have done, unreservedly, is raise the profile of online learning in an international context.
Credentialing and affordability
In the hunt for sustainability, some schools are mixing the MOOC format with more traditional courses, offering selective programs at the graduate level. Georgia Institute of Technology, an Atlanta-based university ranked 25th in the world by the Times Higher Education allows MOOC students to earn a Master level computer science degree. The program is priced at US$6,630, one-third the cost of the on-campus degree. For the initial cohort, Georgia accepted 400 students from more than 2,300 applications, with a goal of 10,000 students over three years.
MOOCs have grabbed the headlines, but other strategies are gaining traction to bring higher education within reach to a wider cohort of learners. One way is to “unbundle” credentials in bite-size pieces of learning, with specific competencies recognized through digital badges, certificates and other forms of accreditation.
In 2014, the University of Arizona’s Eller School of Management plans to offer three non-degree online “Specialisations” based on content from the school’s top-ranked, on-campus programmes in management information systems, entrepreneurship and strategic digital marketing. Aimed at those seeking job-ready skills, the new Specialisations represent a concentration of relevant knowledge in high-demand fields, with a student required to take three certificate programs, each comprised of three one-month online courses.
“This is the iTunes version of higher education,” says Joe Valacich, Eller’s director of online initiatives. “We have to create very small learning modules and have them done well. The students have to find them to be of great value,” he says of the university’s strategy. “It’s about reach. The idea that we could have hundreds of thousands of students globally all being U of A alumni is mind-blowing.”
In addition to the three initial Specialisations from the business school, Valacich says the university is “exploring the development” of additional offerings by Eller and other on-campus professional schools, such as law. “Our goal is to engage various colleges in non-degree offerings specific to a particular college as well as hybrid programs that will blend content across colleges.”
As new credentials gain ground, so does interest in competency-based education that awards degrees based on what students know, not time spent in class.
An American pioneer in this fast-growing field is Utah-based Western Governors University, an online, public institution founded in 1997 by a group of state governors to serve the country’s 37-million working adults, many of whom have some college training but no degree. Over the past five years, WGU reported a four-fold expansion in enrolment to more than 42,000 students in 50 states, with rising levels of retention, students in good academic standing and student satisfaction.
On average, students arrive with one year of college, earn a bachelor’s degree in 34 months (two years faster than at a bricks and mortar institution) and pay $6,000 a year, a fraction of tuition charged by conventional public colleges. With computer-mediated interactive instruction and full-time lecturers serving as one-on-one mentors, students advance by completing assignments that assess their knowledge of industry-vetted material.
The focus of the online university is working adults, not high school graduates headed to an on-campus college. But WGU president Robert Mendenhall says his institution’s business model is increasingly relevant given the public backlash against rising tuition and student debt. “Having a model that says we can provide high-quality education for $6,000 a year does send a message that we need to find more efficient ways to deliver high-quality education,” he says.
Since 2010, WGU has partnered with five American states to set up online, state-based affiliates that aim to graduate adults ready to contribute to economic growth. WGU has also advised half a dozen other higher education institutions in the U.S. in the throes of adopting competency-based education.
As in the past, technology is crucial to WGU’s future. Students now can write exams from home using a webcam instead of driving to a secure site, while instructors use data analytics to assess gaps in student learning. “Over the next five years, technology will increase the gap between how effective a teacher can be in the classroom with 30 students as opposed to how effective technology can be in delivering the right thing at the right time and helping students learn more efficiently and effectively,” says Mendenhall.
Where from here?
As online learning options and credentials proliferate in what some are now calling an era of “post-traditional higher education,” universities still need to ask the core questions: whom will they serve, and how well? At the very least, both students and institutions are watching out for new yardsticks to measure success. For example, if a viable business case emerges for MOOCs, they will be evaluated on the number of student participants, drop-out rates, student learning satisfaction and relevance to a career. In time, say analysts, there could be global rankings for MOOCs, as now exist for top-rated global institutions. Meanwhile, badges, certificates and other credentials are in their infancy, with the onus on institutions to explain how they complement traditional forms of accreditation.
“The big challenge for providers is how to convince governments, institutions and employers that what students study not only represents new skills but is worthy of a new document or diploma or certification,” says the World Bank’s Marmolejo.
There will be no easy shortcuts for universities that want to expand their presence internationally, warns Sir John Daniel, the former head of the UK Open University: “You become a well-known global university by a long hard slog of doing things well.”