Britain’s higher education sector is one of the most successful in the world, and worth over £25bn to our economy each year. 32 of the world’s top 200 Universities are here, and the UK enjoys an exceptional global reputation for consistently delivering pioneering research and an exceptional student experience.
Yet according to the government’s figures, the number of non-EU international students fell to 134,000 in 2016, a fall of over 30% on the 175,000 who studied in the UK in 2015. This was also the lowest number recorded since 2002.
Under pressure to curb migration, and despite the concerns of industry and universities, the government has been reluctant to remove international students from the official migration statistics or loosen visa rules that put some of the world’s best and brightest students off studying here. Brexit too, with a 9% decline in EU student numbers over the past six months alone, is adding further pressure on our global standing.
In response to some of these challenges, UK universities are accelerating their investment in online degrees. Whilst we must continue to address falling numbers of international students arriving on campus, the growth of high-quality digital degrees presents an enormous opportunity for businesses in the UK and for individuals looking to work, earn and learn.
The Digital Revolution
This week, the University of Exeter unveiled a ten-year partnership with my company, Keypath Education, to deliver a suite of postgraduate courses in a range of subjects, beginning with MSc’s in Finance & Management, International Business, and Marketing. This now means we work with 16 partner institutions across the UK, US, Australia and Canada to provide online courses to over 3,500 students across over 50 degree programmes. It’s a new pedagogy from universities and a new model for those seeking to develop their career.
Not every degree course can be undertaken online. Nor is the vital, traditional undergraduate experience on campus set to disappear. But we are witnessing a digital revolution in our universities that will increase access for students who, because of their career, childcare responsibilities or cost pressures, would not otherwise have been able to study.
New technologies are providing the tools to deliver exceptional learning experiences online. Skype-screens where you engage with your classmates and academics in weekly sessions; analysis which tracks your study to-date and personalises it according to your learning style and performance; finger-print and iris-recognition which authenticates students during assessments - all of this is becoming commonplace and truly revolutionising global education.
The benefits of exceptional analytics and personalised learning are arriving at a time when the need to have access to reskilling and retraining has never been more important. Many sectors – not least the automotive and travel industries - will become unrecognisable due to automation over the next decade; top professionals are often unable to take a year out to attend campus; and the importance of long-long learning will accelerate further as the size of the middle-classes continues to grow around the world.
For business and industry, online degrees also allow the opportunity to shape the future labour force – we are actively working to co-design, co-sponsor and co-deliver online programmes in partnership with major employers, which will enable them to transform their approach to continuous professional development and ensure greater synthesis between the worlds of education and business.
Choice and supply
The introduction of high-quality online degrees from some of the world’s top universities is not a threat to the traditional campus. It is an essential component of the future education landscape. Streaming music online is now routine, but live gigs have never been more popular.
The campus will remain central but be enhanced by digital resources. Online degrees will extend access but and be supplemented by summer schools and residential components. Over time, the boundaries between on-campus and online will blur entirely ensuring students are truly at the heart of the system - studying in a format and at a pace that suits their lives. This will not only be life-changing for students and transformative for Universities but also vital in ensuring that Britain retains its position at the vanguard of global higher education.
Rajay Naik is chief executive at Keypath Education