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Online learning as a response to global shifts in higher education

  • 2 February 2024
  • By Nicola McCullough and Joel Roberts
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Nicola McCullough, Director of Education at Ahead in Sport and a mentor for Women in Football, and Joel Roberts, Chief Executive at Ahead in Sport.

UK higher education has had a strong international reputation for many years. However, increasing competition for international students and recent reputational challenges may hinder UK institutions’ ability to support global higher education growth, and the growing need for upskilling and reskilling.

Whilst there are challenges, UK higher education remains in a strong position to take advantage of these opportunities. The expansion of transnational education (TNE) via online learning, and partnerships with industry-connected providers offers one promising route to meeting global higher education and skills needs.

Shifting dynamics in global higher education

Demand for higher education has grown significantly over the past few decades, and enrolments are projected to reach nearly 600 million by 2040. However, the global share of enrolments is set to shift, with regions like Western Europe declining, while other regions are expected to grow. For example, the number of enrolments in the Arab states region is predicted to double, driven by factors such as demographic and geopolitical shifts.

There is also a widely acknowledged need for upskilling and reskilling globally, largely due to technological changes. The OECD has estimated that 1.1 billion jobs are likely to be transformed by these changes over the next decade. Consequently, the need for access to high-quality education, aligned with the evolving needs of industries, is becoming increasingly acute.

A common critique of higher education by employers is that institutions are not equipping learners with the skills and knowledge employers need. However, collaborative provision with industry partners or industry focused providers can help address this issue. 

It involves combining the strengths of UK higher education with a deep and close understanding of industry and employer needs. When these partnerships are effective, they can help provide a quality and innovative curriculum. They can also help to support learning experiences and a delivery approach that aligns with both employer needs and learner aspirations and requirements.

Expanding transnational education through online learning

The future global landscape offers UK higher education a significant opportunity.  However, the UK’s international reputation has been impacted by decisions such as the removal of the QAA as the designated quality body in 2023. Additionally, the competition for international students is also intensifying.

For UK higher education to grasp opportunities in supporting global education and skills needs, relying heavily on traditional campus-based offerings seems inadequate. The UK is often perceived as an expensive study location, which presents barriers. Additionally, recent government policy interventions and ongoing challenges with student accommodation have been diminishing the attractiveness and accessibility of campus-based higher education.

One substantial way UK higher education can support global education and skill needs is by expanding TNE through online learning. A 2022 British Council report indicated that, following the global pandemic, distance and online education has received a boost, and provides opportunities to reach students “across geographies with little awareness of UK education” and a “much-needed means to upskill workforces through continuing professional development”.

While online distance learning has been a steadily growing component of UK higher education’s transnational education (TNE) activity, it has decreased as a proportion of TNE activity in this time from 30% in 2018/19 to 26% in 2021/22.

This decrease has occurred at a time when global online learning is growing, with learners using it to develop their skills in a changing job market.

However, many learners are turning to a variety of mostly online education platforms and providers that offer courses globally to develop their skills. These entities are increasingly creating courses, often in partnership with or endorsed by industry partners.

This development could pose a risk to UK higher education institutions in seizing opportunities to support global education needs if they fail to develop courses and delivery methods that reach and meet the needs of learners.

Working with industry-focused providers through collaborative provision can facilitate a closer alignment of skills with employer needs. These partnerships can also offer a pathway to developing course delivery models and types that are more accessible to learners, contrasting with the often-prohibitive nature of traditional campus-based learning.

A collaborative model to meet global education needs

At Ahead In Sport, collaboration with UK higher education partners has been key to offering innovative online education tailored for the growing football industry.

These partnerships demonstrate the effectiveness of collaborative online provision in providing broader and more convenient access to education. Through this innovative delivery model our learners are not restricted by location or timing, giving them the flexibility they need, within their working week, to remain focused on their existing professional football commitments or career aspirations.

Also, being closely aligned with the needs of the football industry, Ahead in Sport offers an education experience that is highly relevant and beneficial for those aiming to advance within this field, whilst at the same time offering a potential remedy for those who may drop out of the game through injury or lack of a contract.

This model showcases how UK higher education can capitalize on existing opportunities to support global education and skill needs, thereby contributing to maintaining the UK’s reputation as a premier provider of education and skills development.

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  1. The article reflects a massive shift that has taken place in higher education over the past 60 years. Robbins spoke (in 1963) of ‘the general powers of the mind’, ‘culture’, ‘truth’, ‘a plane of generality’, ‘the advancement of learning’ and of ‘citizenship’. Now, however, the talk is of ‘skills’, ’employability’, ’employers’, ‘skill needs’, ‘course delivery’, ‘upskilling’ and ‘reskilling’.

    In short, in this discursive shift, the educational function of higher education has fallen way: ‘higher education’ is no longer a space of education (properly understood). (Just what is meant by ‘global education’?)

    And yet, higher education needs NOT to hang onto an idea of higher education as such but to EXPAND it, to advance (eg) an idea of criticality fit for a complex and an antagonistic world.

    How, for instance, amid the talk of skills and employability, are the personal resources and powers going to be developed in order for graduate professionals to speak truth to power and, as the need arises, to be whistle-blowers, speaking out AGAINST malign organisational and employer practices, or against the manipulations of the internet, backed by malign states and mega-corporations?

    This is no mere academic matter or a harking back to a golden age but a matter of the profoundest significance for this global, ecological and digital age. Without horizons of this kind, higher education will simply perform the instrumental goals set for it rather than developing new educational ideas fit for the third millennium.

    And without horizons of these kinds, higher education will contribute (and is already contributing) to the closing of an open and self-critical society.

    This is a dangerous moment for the world.

    Ron Barnett

  2. Ros Lucas says:

    Open University works well – on-line learning whilst also earning makes good sense in todays’s uncertain vulnerable job market.
    As it also makes sense to do an Degree Apprenticeship and avoid escalating debt affordable or not, thus reducing anxiety and stress.
    Universities, like schools and colleges must act now and plan for a different future of learning and accreditation, collabirating with sector Institutes and Organisations to avoid stagnation and reliance on outdated methods of teaching and unfit for purpose testing and exams. AI, Robotics, digital and nano-technology is escalating, so must education and medicine too, both disciplines underfunded.
    By removing unnecessary aspects and getting all undergraduates working at ground level up not in lectures from the beginning if a course and then doing practicals with theory alongside, real applied learning can take place.

  3. Richard Heller says:

    This is a great contribution. Resonates with my 2022 HEPI blog Also recent preprint showing global inequity in access to Australian universities as international students My question, how do we make expansion of global education happen?

  4. Helppo says:

    Thanks for sharing information like this on online learning. It is very beneficial.

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