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Work, earn and learn: the rise of the online degree

By Rajay Naik
The rise of the online degree in the UK

The UK is on the cusp of a digital revolution in higher education. This September, several top UK universities will seize the opportunity to reach more students by offering entirely online postgraduate degrees.

High-quality online learning has become hugely attractive to mid-career professionals looking to gain new qualifications while continuing to work, provide childcare and maintain their other responsibilities. Ironically, many of those in careers being displaced by technology are using it to retrain and reskill for new industries. Meanwhile, those in good careers find that Masters degrees are increasingly a prerequisite for progression into executive roles. For these students, the opportunity to work, earn and learn is not only a convenient route for study — it is the only one.

The fees for an online degree in the UK — typically around £18,000 for a two-year programme (but avoiding accommodation costs) — are broadly equal to those for a conventional course. The academic content, faculty engagement and rigorous assessment are on a par with on-campus courses.

In fact, they are in many ways superior. Iris and fingerprint recognition are used to verify essays, while analytics measure student engagement and personalise the learning experience. When a student needs targeted support to keep them on track, academic and pastoral support teams will know before the student does.

Dozens of FTSE100 companies now sponsor their staff for online degree programs, appreciating the fact that employees can implement their learning in the workplace immediately. Students graduate with precisely the same degree as their on-campus counterparts, and are often keen to inform prospective employers that they studied online as a signal of their commitment and self-determination. Online is no longer second best or an “add on”; it is a badge of honour.

The US is well ahead of Britain in this field. A combination of geography, an insistence on choice, and the American appetite for self-improvement has driven the growth of online postgraduate degrees. It is imperative that UK universities now take their exceptional teaching online in order to retain the UK’s position in the vanguard of global higher education.

To add to the sense of urgency, the government’s vision for post-Brexit Britain is one of global trade and international competitiveness within the confines of controlled and managed migration. Until students on study visas are taken out of the migration numbers, this will mean fewer international students travelling to the UK to study.

According to the UK government’s own figures, the number of non-EU international students fell to 134,000 in 2016, well down on the 175,000 who arrived in the UK in 2015. The government’s visa regime and the political pressure on ministers to reduce migrant numbers is undoubtedly keeping the numbers low, while uncertainty around Brexit looks to compound the problem.

It is in that context that universities are expanding into online provision. As an example, this week Keypath Education will announce a ten-year partnership to launch online degrees on behalf of a Russell Group university consistently ranked in the top 1% of institutions worldwide.

Face-to-face provision will rightly remain the primary model, particularly for undergraduates. There is little that can compete with the networks developed in an Oxbridge college or the life skills learned in university halls. However, the digital revolution has enabled greater personalisation, choice and convenience for postgraduate study, and this is now being embraced by Britain’s universities. Online study will not only be invigorating for our institutions and vital for our exports — it will also be transformative for access to education across the world.

This blog first appeared in The Sunday Times on April 2, 2017.

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