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A network for global online learning

  • 28 July 2022
  • By Richard F. Heller

This blog was written by Richard F. Heller, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Manchester, UK and Newcastle, Australia.

The rate of completing higher education varies greatly between countries. The largest disparities in access to higher education are between the Global North and the Global South, with sub-Saharan Africa at only one quarter of the global average.

Income from overseas students plays a large role in the national economies and financial support of universities in countries such as the UK and Australia, hence the statement in the UK’s International Education Strategy: Global potential, global growth

At its heart is an ambition to increase the value of our education exports to £35 billion per year, and to increase the number of international higher education students hosted in the UK to 600,000 per year, both by 2030.

While the strategy recognises the value to international students of access to higher education, the policy focus is on benefits to the UK economy with no mention of attempting to correct global imbalances in access.

While many committed academics in the Global North can point to success stories in providing university education for those in the Global South, current structures limit the ability to do this at scale. There is a limit to the number of students who can travel to, and spend time living in, another country for face-to-face teaching, given the high financial costs and greater awareness of the environmental impacts of doing so.

My recent open access book, The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education, has suggested a pivot to online education. This is key to being able to scale up to meet the massive requirements for global access to higher education. Despite a previous reluctance to embrace the online format by many educators, COVID-19 has given universities and students experience and confidence in online learning. Many universities plan to continue to deliver at least some of their courses online or in a hybrid model together with face-to-face teaching. Well-designed online learning has been shown to have excellent outcomes, comparable to learning face-to-face. The online format is likely to grow in importance and improve as experience grows, time is taken to develop high quality courses, and advantage is taken of future developments in communications technology. 

I propose a network for global online learning where courses from collaborating universities would be offered to students in the Global South. Online courses already in existence would be offered, and new ones created collaboratively by partner organisations. Ideally, the network would be joined by universities in the Global South. 

The online format facilitates collaboration between educators in different geographies. In Peoples-uni, which described itself as ‘an educational charity to build Public Health capacity in low- to middle-income countries through online learning’, tutors from more than 50 countries came together virtually to develop and deliver a fully online master’s programme in public health to students in the Global South. A majority of graduates saidthey would not have been able to gain this level of award otherwise. 

There are many examples of partnerships and collaborations between universities unleashing the power of collaboration, although most relate to research. Universities have come together to deliver successful educational programmes such as the Biostatistics Collaboration of Australia and the International Clinical Epidemiology Network. Universitas 21 is a global network of 28 research intensive universities whose Global Citizens programme is an example of a global online programme co-produced by a number of universities. The OERu comprises a partnership of universities offering free online learning and has started its first degree courses.

These examples suggest that collaboration between universities in the provision of online education to increase global access to higher education might be feasible. Credibility established through meeting educational needs in the Global South, where strong future population growth is projected, might lead to a long-term enhancement of current sources of students as well as the resulting soft power benefits. By 2100, for example, Nigeria will have overtaken China in population size, while the population of Africa will represent a quarter of the world’s population and the population of more than half of African countries will have doubled in size by 2050. COVID-19 has taught us the ephemeral nature of the overseas student market.

Given the reason for a network for global online learning is to increase global access to education rather than generate income from overseas students, student fees would have to be lower than at present. Whatever we may think of the ethical implications of using income from the Global South to prop up higher education sectors in the Global North, the reality is that fees from overseas students are used to cross subsidise education and research in universities both in the UK and Australia. The network I am suggesting should be seen, at least initially, as additional to the current physical influx of international students until universities can be appropriately funded

Former Vice-Chancellor of the Open University Peter Horrocks has also made the case for a globalisation plan for teaching and learning with many of the features described here and former Universities Minister the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP has called for a new international educational strategy in the UK.

Is there room in overseas development aid to support an infrastructure for a network for global online learning? Might philanthropic organisations be prepared to provide seed funding? Is there appetite among the community with interest in higher education to lead the further thinking on the establishment of such a network? Who might take the lead?

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