Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Threat of the Mega-Providers in Higher Education

"In the long run we are all dead".  I can't remember who said that but I'm wondering how much more time we have in higher education before the world-scale mega-providers of education and training put us out of business.  This is a "lightening talk" I'll be delivering at the EdTech2019 in Dundalk at the end of May.  As there is no time for discussion at the end of each talk I'd be happy to discuss this over a drink after the conference dinner. Or you could join the debate in the comments below.

Scale has been a major contributor to modern prosperity.  In both the private and public sectors, achieving scale, particularly using technology, has allowed us to provide existing services and products at lower unit costs, and use the savings to access further products and services.  Some of these we consider necessities, such as improved health services, and some we consider luxuries, such as international holiday travel.

Contrary to this trend, the cost of providing higher education has grown over time.  However,  some institutions are working to reverse this trend.  Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is delivering online degrees at a lower price tag than other online providers and is the fastest growing online provider in the US.  Some edX members are now delivering full masters degrees in MOOC formats at a fraction of the cost of regular online masters degrees.

So how will this affect higher education?  Well there may be some immediate impact on online education.  There is some indication that small scale online programmes in the US are not growing and the growth in online learning is mostly distributed among large-scale providers like SNHU and Western Governors University (WGU).  Even recently other regional online providers such as University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and UMass Online have announce their intention to scale up nationally.

But what about campus-based learning?  As you might expect, online learning may hit the campus based programmes initially at masters level .  The original MOOC style masters degree in Computer Science from Georgia Tech has around 5,000 enrollments and has had a major impact on both campus and online masters in computing around the US.  Even now edX has announced its intention to deliver MicroBachelors.  Just as the edX MicroMasters have developed into full, low-cost online masters degrees, will this develop into full low-cost bachelors degrees.  Would the high levels of reported dissatisfaction with the value-for-money of degree courses in the US drive young people to take these online programmes rather than attend college full-time?

So much for the US, what about Ireland?

I tend to find that we all consider the increase in the cost of delivering higher education to be a negative development.  By the same token, I would assume that any effort to reduce the cost to both the state and individuals as a positive move.  Not necessarily so.  I have often asked academics in higher education, "If we could replace lecturers with computer systems, should we?"  The response is generally "No".  When asked for a reason I am generally told it can't be done for one reason or another, which belies either a misunderstanding of the question or a refusal to answer it. (Remember I said "if")  No more than barrels existed for the sake of coopers, higher education does not exist for the sake of lecturers.  If the national objectives, which are currently being addressed by our higher education system, could be achieved in another more cost-effective way, why would we not change the way we do it.

Low-cost education from abroad may not be particularly successful if expensive education in Ireland is highly subsidised.  But there is some reason to believe that these high levels of subsidy may not continue indefinitely.  As the population of Ireland grows older, both the numbers requiring healthcare and the increasing sophistication of healthcare available will drive up costs enormously (not to mention pensions). The state will most likely look for efficiencies and savings elsewhere in order to increase healthcare spending.  If they can purchase higher education online from elsewhere, more cheaply than it can be provided locally, why would they not choose to do that?  And perhaps it would indeed be the best thing to do.

In conclusion, I believe that large-scale providers will dominate the future of higher education and that institutions in Ireland will not ultimately be protected from such competition.  However, I do believe that there will be ways for our higher education institutions to remain relevant.  To do so will require significant innovation, way beyond what we are now considering, and what emerges will look a lot different to what we have now.  That's a discussion for another day.

P.S. In the interests of brevity I have not mentioned mega-providers in the non-accredited sector.  Organisations like Coursera or Microsoft (who own Linkedin Learning - formerly are making skills based training with verifiable certification available at low cost to millions.  If employers start valuing such courses in the same way as degrees, this will also be a threat to existing higher education.


  1. Brian,

    Interesting article, food for thought, James, IT Services, TCD

  2. Thanks, James. Ray Schroeder has addressed the same topic today in IHE, but he also adds some suggestions for smaller online providers:

  3. Good article Brian. I hope your talk goes well!

  4. The above blog seems timely - here's another article on how "The College Consoritium" is helping smaller colleges survice:

  5. Well, take a look at the Open University in India, it has around 3 or 4 million students. Or closer to home, the OU equivalent has around 2 million students.
    However, speaking with at WISE in Quatar a year or so ago, someone may have all the online qualifications you can think of to their name, until they start the job and you suddenly realise they clearly were not the people who got the certificates!