How do we make university education more affordable and accessible? It’s a good but difficult question. Like a silver lining to a dark cloud, COVID-19 has provided impetus for change.
In the past several months, many people’s ideas of acceptable modes of university learning have been challenged. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, most institutions of higher learning now offer some programs online and almost all students have experienced some type of remote learning.
Face-to-face learning helps some undergraduates transition from dependent to more independent learners. It enables new, informal social interactions, which are often seen as a rite of passage. These are important considerations for some university learners.
Is campus critical for everyone?
However, a relevant question is whether these experiences are critical to a complete university education, and therefore worth the significantly greater costs of building and maintaining the related, necessary physical infrastructure of university campuses. While individual learner characteristics affect preferences and performance, studies suggest there is no significant performance difference among online or face-to-face learners.
That said, does virtual learning provide an acceptable, continuing means to educate an adult populace in some or most circumstances? This question is important, because if virtual learning does posit an important alternative to in-person learning, changes to public funding of higher education are needed.
I ask these questions as one who has been employed as a university educator for more than 30 years in both physical and virtual classrooms, and explored various forms of online learning in my research, as well as having developed open educational resources, as a means to lower costs for learners.
Throughout, a primary desire has been to put higher education within the reach of more people. As a professionally trained accountant and former university administrator, I am also aware of how difficult it is to make this financially feasible. I am also employed at Athabasca University, a completely online institution.
A shift to remote learning is now being encouraged by many thought leaders: A 2020 report authored by David Maguire, interim principal and vice-chancellor of University of Dundee in Scotland, in collaboration with an educational technology director, is focused on reimagining teaching and learning for the digital age. Among other recommendations, the report advocates for exploring new economic models for high-quality blended learning.
In Canada and the United States over the last four decades, costs of the traditional physical classroom model of higher education have increased almost five times faster than the rate of inflation.
Post-secondary education has been linked with social mobility and a reduction in inequality. But to attend in-person campus based education, people in remote and rural communities face the financial and social burden of moving to study. Adult learners in higher education also face issues with both affordability and accessibility, in part due to juggling many other responsibilities with dependents or employment.
Paying for campus, attending online?
Historically, universities have needed to physically gather learners and faculty in one place. This in turn has required building and maintaining classrooms and other physical amenities like residences, sports stadiums and other public spaces.
Right now, students are taking virtual courses from a primarily on-campus institution typically at comparable fees as if they were attending in person (or sometimes even paying more), which may seem counter-intuitive. This is because virtual learning is often priced as if its share of all the institution’s costs must be covered (including those of providing physical amenities), plus the costs of implementing systems necessary for online learning.
Governments have largely funded physical amenities in the past and continue to do so. Consider the Alberta higher education sector. At present, there are four research-based universities (Calgary, Lethbridge, Alberta, Athabasca). The first three are campus-based.
Athabasca University, my university, is the province’s only completely online educational institution. It has no classrooms, other than some necessary labs. It is now implementing a permanent virtual (at-home) workplace for the large majority of faculty and staff.
In fiscal 2020, the provincial government matched one dollar of tuition received by the universities of Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge with between $1.75 and $2.85 of provincial operating grants. At Athabasca University, every $1 of tuition was matched by just 57 cents of provincial grants. This suggests that on-campus higher learning is more highly subsidized by the public than virtual learning.
I am not suggesting an increase in direct funding for Athabasca. Rather, the present public funding model of higher education needs to be transformed.
Changing the funding model
One means to accomplish this would be for governments to reimburse students a fixed amount of tuition in the form of refundable tax credits when they file their personal tax returns annually. Universities would no longer receive government operating grants directly. University administrators would charge per-student tuition that in aggregate would be sufficient to cover all annual operating costs.
The outcome would be that campus-based universities with higher operating costs would have to charge relatively higher tuition. Since each learner would receive a fixed amount of reimbursement, the net cost of an on-campus learning experience would increase. Demand from students would decrease if students didn’t perceive the benefits to outweigh the additional financial costs.
Those who considered the resulting lower tuition fees for virtual education worth any foregone benefits of the alternative would choose this model. In all likelihood, demand for virtual learning would increase as relative cost decreased.
Reduced financial barriers
Several benefits would result. At the very least, students would make educational choices with an awareness of what they’re paying for. Most importantly, financial barriers that discourage participation in higher education would be reduced if the net costs of virtual education decreased. Non-traditional learners could benefit from less expensive educational models that are not time- and place-dependent.
Considering universities as a whole from the point of view of public support for education, relative demand for on-campus versus virtual learning would no longer be skewed by unequal subsidization. Assuming relative demand for online learning increases as a result, institutions would be encouraged to offer comparatively more online education.
By phasing changes in over several years, administrators could gradually lower costs as they found alternative revenue streams for increasingly unnecessary physical infrastructure. Government funding for research could continue to be transferred directly to research-based institutions, but as specified amounts that would need to be demonstrably spent on those activities.
The benefits of funding mechanisms that support informed student choice would continue, even if much university education moved online. The potential to attract more learners would provide incentives for faculty, staff and administrators to continually improve.
The result would be new learning, teaching and technological strategies that move universities into today and the future while still retaining the autonomous, faculty-centred governance structures of publicly funded, not-for-profit universities.