I just love the serendipity of having BBC Radio 4 on in the car.
Today, I happened to catch a fascinating segment in the You and Yours programme on higher education. The Open University (OU) has seen a sharp increase in students in the under-25 age bracket. These now make up 17% of the student body of this distance-learning institution; an increase of 10% over last year. Those aged 18-19 have seen the fastest growth.
It is no surprise that cost is a factor here. Fees at the OU are £5,000 per year compared with up to £9,000 at conventional universities. However, all of the speakers – the OU’s Director, Students Will Swann; University of London’s Dean of International Programmes, Jonathan Kidd and new under-graduate student at the OU, Jane Nuttall – noted that flexibility also played an important part, along with reduced travel. Nuttall, who turned down a place at a conventional university, reckoned she would save £10,000 by taking the OU route and reasoned that she could accommodate a working (earning) life alongside her studies because of the OU’s flexibility. Professor Kidd also observed that technology has enabled distance-learning to become far more sophisticated over recent years and that students in the 18-25 year cohort come to their studies with a greater level of digital savvy and thus – comfortable with social media and with building and maintaining virtual relationships – experience lower sensations of isolation compared to past students.
Cost is a factor but, just as economic factors are driving long-lasting change in the nature of work (with individuals and organisations embracing flexible working), so economics will become a driver towards a new approach to university learning. After all, as with factories and offices in the Industrial Age, physical universities became established to enable students to learn from professors where they were located. In a more virtual world, learning no longer needs to happen en masse in a single location (though we need to be careful not to lose the benefits which such crucibles of learning bring).
As students no longer need to be physically located in the same place, neither do they need to learn at the same pace or at the same time as their peers. The way becomes open for individual, customised – not production line – education. One of the best examples I know of this approach is the distance learning MBA offered by Heriot Watt University’s Edinburgh Business School where students can join the programme at any point in the year, can study subjects in any order they prefer and can pace their examinations to suit their readiness (subject only to a maximum time limit of seven years). Quality is controlled through rigorous, closed-book examinations which are held around the world. In the field of professional qualifications (accountancy, law etc.), the provider BPP (which recently became the first private provider to become a university in three decades) has pioneered this flexible approach for over 40 years.
Flexible learning means that life-long, or career-long, learning becomes much, much easier. And as individuals become increasingly responsible for all aspects of their career, these sovereign professionals will embrace flexible learning methods to hone their particular value proposition.
The radio programme is available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015yt43#-. The OU segment is between 12:08 and 16 minutes through.