Image: Flickr / Wayne Williams

Universities will fail to offer value for money if they persist with online learning, says the OECD

Post-pandemic efforts by universities to shift lectures and other events online would undercut their ‘monopoly’ on teaching, and erode public support for tuition fees up to £9,250, says Andreas Schleicher, the Director of Education and Skills for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

British universities will fail to offer value for money for students if they continue to persist with online learning, say the OECD. They further said that universities risk being outclassed by new digital providers.

“I do think that the value proposition of universities is being challenged in the age in which we live. I don’t think you can ask students to pay £9,000 for just online lessons,” said Schleicher.

“Students go to university to meet great professors, they go to university to work with colleagues and researchers in a laboratory, they go to university to experience the social life of campus, and that’s the value proposition of universities.”

Universities were forced to move their teaching online over the last academic year, with Covid-19 restrictions moving contact hours online. Many universities, including Warwick and Manchester, are planning to retain large amounts of online learning by keeping lectures online. Some, like Warwick and Oxford, plan to continue renting out teaching space at various times during the year for corporate events.

But Schleicher warned: “If that [online lectures] remains, I think you are going to see a lot of alternative providers: it’s a very interesting competition when it comes to online provision.

“I don’t see universities will be able to maintain a monopoly, and I do think that will be reflected in the fee structure.

“Personally, I think this is going to be a real challenge, as our universities find a good way to do something meaningful that is actually personal, intensive, interactive, and social. Then, they can charge for that. Or if they just ‘go digital’, I wonder whether they will be able to maintain those costs, and whether students will be willing to pay for them.”

The OECD’s figures showed that UK tuition fees remain the highest for state-funded higher education among the OECD’s member nations, while fees at private providers in the US continue to be higher.

“The quality of learning on offer with online learning is markedly inferior to in-person teaching – something that lecturers pre-COVID never failed to tell their students”

– Put Warwick Students First

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “UK universities are world-leading, with the benefits of obtaining a degree here wide-ranging…The structure of the system in England means that no student pays fees up front, and repayments are made based on a graduate’s ability to pay over their working life.”

It also argued that its members have “been doing more with less” since fees in England were frozen in 2015.

Schleicher said that the UK remained “attractive” for international students, but the nature of its high cost meant it was attracting mainly wealthy international students, rather than the most talented.

When asked for a comment on this story, the student campaign group Put Warwick Students First said: “Online teaching does not offer students the same value as in-person teaching.

“The quality of learning on offer with online learning is markedly inferior to in-person teaching – something that lecturers pre-COVID never failed to tell their students.

“Furthermore, a key part of the university experience is the social aspect. Online teaching fails in this regard in comparison to in-person teaching. Many students under online teaching last year were unable to make the lifelong friends which their predecessors had due to online teaching, many students were unable to make any friends due to online teaching.

“This has led to an increase in mental health issues among the student population. In essence, online teaching means that students are paying for inferior teaching, and for mental health issues.”

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