Universities with high tuition fees offering online courses may face ‘hard time’

Universities in England which charge high tuition fees could face a challenging time if they only offer online courses, an education expert has suggested.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), warned that students will not spend a lot of money on remote learning courses.

Speaking at a webinar in London about the OECD’s Education At A Glance study, he said institutions must ensure that students still have “one-on-one connections” with academics, as well as social experiences.

The report warns that the pandemic may have a “severe impact” on UK universities who rely heavily on international students and their fee income.

Universities in England can charge up to £9,250 per year for an undergraduate degree, and even more to overseas students.

These fees are among the highest in the developed world, according to the OECD study which looks at the state of education systems across 37 nations with developed economies, plus nine other countries.

Speaking about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on higher education around the world, Mr Schleicher said: “Universities have often provided online courses to make up for this but young people are not going to spend a lot of money and a lot of their time to consume online courses.

“They go to education to universities to meet great people, to have that very special discussion with the professor, to work with researchers in a laboratory, to experience a social life on campus.

“If those things don’t work, I think universities are going to face a very, very hard time.

“It’s particularly an issue for a country like England where tuition is very high for national students, but even more so for foreign students. The barriers for young people to pay that are going to be significant.”

The UK accounts for 8% of the market share for international university students – and around a quarter of international students studying in the country come from China, the report shows.

It also found that the earnings premium from a university degree is lower in the UK than the average across OECD countries.

Mr Schleicher said: “When [UK] universities expanded so rapidly – more and more people going – somehow quality was a little bit lost on the way.

“The expansion of higher education in the UK, you know, quality hasn’t caught up with this so you can see these earnings returns are a good indicator of that.

“So I think that’s something to watch out. Higher education is meant to be a really high-quality opportunity for advanced skills.”

His warning came as the National Union of Students (NUS) called for students to be given the option to have their fees reimbursed if they were unable to access their online learning during the summer term.

A survey by the NUS found that nearly a fifth (19%) of students said the online provision was not of a good standard and 15% said they were not able to access the provision to complete their studies.

Many universities are planning to use a blended learning approach, with a mix of online and in-person classes, when campuses reopen this month. Some institutions have abandoned large face-to face lectures.

When asked what universities can do to strengthen their online offer, Mr Schleicher said: “In the short term, the online world is going to be very important but I do think universities really need to reconsider their value proposition to ensure that learners have that social experience.

“So to ensure that learners have one-on-one connections with their faculty that they can actually engage with researchers.

“I think if universities are just broadcasting knowledge, they’re going to lose their value proposition.”