> Mega-universities = Mega-impact on Access, Cost and Quality - Updated: 2003-11-18 8:49 am
First Summit of Mega-universities, Shanghai, China, 7-9 November 2003
Assistant Director-General for Education
(Dedicated to the memory of Walter Laing Macdonald Perry 1921 – 2003)
It is a tremendous pleasure to be here with you. Speakers always say that. But for me this event really is very special indeed and I am deeply honoured to give this keynote address.
When I coined the word mega-university a decade ago I did not know that it would pass into the English language and then become a new term in the educational vocabulary around the world. I also had no idea that ten years later I would be attending the first summit meeting of mega-universities. I am most grateful to China and the Shanghai TVU for taking this initiative, which it is a pleasure for UNESCO to support.
I have taken as my title: Mega-universities = Mega-impact on Access, Cost and Quality. Since I was responsible for introducing the new word mega-university, you will understand if my remarks this morning are a blend of personal reflection and professional analysis.
Rather appropriately, the link between my first contact with a large distance teaching university and my invention of the term mega-university was a course of study that I undertook in a spirit of lifelong learning. In 1971 I was working in my first academic job as an assistant professor of metallurgical engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique of the University of Montreal.
Following my lengthy education through an undergraduate degree at Oxford and a doctorate in Paris I seemed to be embarked on a career as a university teacher.
I was determined to do a good job as a teacher and I thought that it would be helpful to know more about education. Teaching and research at Ecole Polytechnique kept me very busy so I knew that I would have to study education part-time.
The most attractive opportunity for doing that in Montreal was a Masters programme in Educational Technology offered by Sir George Williams University. It was a two-year full time programme, which included an internship and a thesis, but you could study it part-time in the evenings, which I did. The programme as a whole was tremendously stimulating, but the life-changing component for me was the internship.
This internship required each student to spend three months working in an organisation that used educational technology. As I started thinking about where to do my internship, news of a remarkable innovation suddenly flowed around the educational world. Everyone began talking about the Open University, a new university in Britain that had just started with 25,000 students in 1971 and taught people wherever they lived using communications technology. ‘Technological devices appropriate to higher education’ were the words used in the University’s charter.
It sounded very exciting and I wrote to ask if I could do my internship at the Open University. I sent the letter to Professor David Hawkridge, Director of the Institute of Educational Technology. He replied that I would be welcome to come for three months as a volunteer worker. Let me note in passing that it was David Hawkridge who, with support from the World Bank, later worked with people here in China to create China’s Television University system.
The Ecole Polytechnique kindly gave me three months leave and in the summer of 1972 I arrived in Milton Keynes to work in an infant institution, which although only in its second year of operation already had 40,000 students.
That short internship was for me a stunning revelation of a revolution in education. I was overwhelmed by the scale, by the idealism, by the commitment of the students, by the use of communications media, by the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole system. I knew that I was looking at the future of higher education and I wanted to be part of it.
Walter Perry: Champion of Size
I do not recall meeting Dr Walter Perry, the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, during my internship but I felt his influence all over the University. You may know that Walter Perry, who became Sir Walter Perry and then Lord Perry of Walton, died earlier this year. I dedicate this address to his memory, because he did more than anyone to build the foundations for today’s mega-universities. It is largely because of him that we can use the word ‘mega’ about these institutions.
The creation of the Open University was controversial. The project was the brainchild of Harold Wilson, who became Prime Minister of the UK in 1964. Although he was passionately committed to what he at first called the University of the Air, the project never became the formal policy of his party, the Labour Party.
He organised the process for setting it up somewhat outside the normal ministerial structures, putting together a planning committee of extremely eminent people. They decided that the new university should not be named the University of the Air, which focused on the methods it would use, but the Open University.
This name stressed the essential purpose of the new venture, which was to make quality higher education more accessible.
Partly because the planning process took place outside the normal government system, and partly because they were timid and conservative people, the civil servants in the education department were deeply sceptical of Wilson’s radical innovation. They expressed their scepticism by urging Walter Perry, when he was appointed Vice-Chancellor and head of the Open University, to begin with a small pilot project to see if the distance teaching system would work.
Fortunately for us here today at this Summit of Mega-universities, Walter Perry ignored this advice. I believe he had two reasons. Even in those early days he understood that one of the great virtues of distance learning was the potential to operate at scale. He could already see that starting an open university required a big investment, but he could also see that if it were able to operate at scale the marginal cost of serving each additional student could be lower than in conventional institutions. He knew therefore, that if he started with a small pilot project of a few hundred students the cost per student would be enormous and people would ridicule the whole idea.
He thus began with an intake of 25,000 students into year one, which was more than the total enrolment of any other UK university at the time.
Indeed, only a few years earlier, when Harold Wilson announced the creation of the University of the Air, there were only 130,000 students in all UK universities put together.
His second reason for starting big was political. He sensed that there was a tremendous pent-up demand for university study from working adults who had not had the opportunity of higher education when they left school. He knew that if substantial numbers of these people were to begin study at the Open University they would create a powerful and vocal political constituency. That is exactly what happened.
When I went to the Open University for my internship in its second year of operation there were 40,000 students and nearly all of them were fanatically supportive of the University, which had given them a second chance for fulfilment through higher learning. The enthusiasm of both students and staff was infectious and I finished my three-month internship at the Open University in 1972 with a burning desire to join this new movement of distance learning.
The opportunity came almost immediately with the creation of Québec’s Télé-université, where I spent four happy years from 1973-77 before moving to Athabasca University in Alberta. From there I was attracted into university leadership functions and, after a period as president of Laurentian University in northern Ontario, I found myself in 1990 back at the Open University as Vice-Chancellor. I was Walter Perry’s second successor in the post. In less than 20 years I rose from being the lowest-paid employee of the Open University – because as an intern I was not paid at all – to becoming its highest-paid staff member.
The benefits of lifelong learning
Perhaps because my studies in educational technology in the early 1970s had such a beneficial impact on my career, I continued to be a lifelong learner and have taken distance-learning courses as a student from four universities over the last two decades. However, I must now make an embarrassing confession. Since my studies of educational technology at Sir George Williams University in the early 1970s led me to move from Montreal to Quebec City and then west to Alberta, I dropped out of that Master’s programme without completing the thesis and getting the degree.
Early in the 1990s, at the beginning of my time at the Open University, I completed a diploma in Theology that I had been studying at a distance with a university in Canada. The urge to study something new came to me again. I thought of studying for an MBA or a degree in Law. However, when I told my wife of this idea she engaged me in a robust discussion. In the end, after explaining to me how little time I had left over from leading the Open University, she said in exasperation, ‘well, if you really must be a student again, why don’t you finish that degree in educational technology that you never completed back in the 1970s?’
I thought this was a brilliant idea and wrote off to Sir George Williams University, which had now become Concordia University, to ask to re-register. They replied with a delightful letter.
It said that they didn’t normally allow people back into a programme after such a long time, adding that most of the courses that I had taken 20 years earlier were now considered obsolete.
They concluded, however, by saying that since it seemed to them that I had applied in my later career what I had learned in the programme in the 1970s they would, as a special concession, allow me to re-register in order to write the thesis.
In 1972 a university in Montreal had given me paid leave to go as an intern to the Open University. In 1995 the Open University granted me paid leave to return to Montreal for a month as a student. There is a nice symmetry about it.
I am pleased to say that I completed the thesis and therefore my degree, which I received at a convocation ceremony in the spring of 1996. At the ceremony I particularly enjoyed being a new graduate, sitting with the others at the back of the hall. That was because at that season of the year I spent most Saturdays presiding over the many degree ceremonies of the Open University. It was nice to see a degree ceremony from a different perspective.
It had taken me 25 to complete this Master’s degree in Educational Technology, so this was an example of lifelong learning at work. It was also a very stimulating experience for me because it took me back into research and reflection, which was a nice change from the analysis and action that filled my days as vice-chancellor of the Open University. I enjoyed turning the thesis into a book and was gratified by its success.
Identifying the Mega-universities
I had decided to devote my thesis to the challenges that distance-teaching universities face in using new information and communication technologies. At the time this was the biggest strategic challenge facing me as head of the Open University. However, as I began to explore the issue it became clear to me that the challenge for the large distance-teaching universities was different, in many ways, from the challenges facing small distance-teaching institutions. It was also extremely different from the challenges facing universities that simply wanted to integrate the use of new technologies into teaching on campus.
I needed a word to describe the restricted set of universities that I intended to study and the word mega-university was the obvious choice. I used the term to designate universities whose primary mission was to teach at a distance and which had over 100,000 students simultaneously enrolled in degree-level programmes. The figure of 100,000 was an arbitrary cut-off but it was a criterion that fitted the reality of the time, which was 1995. I do not recall that there were any distance-teaching universities with between sixty and one hundred thousand students.
My criterion gave me a set of eleven institutions: the China TV University system; the Centre National d’Enseignement à Distance in France; Spain’s Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED); the University of South Africa (UNISA); the Korea National Open University; Indonesia’s Universitas Terbuka; the UK Open University; India’s Indira Gandhi National Open University; Payame Noor University in Iran; Thailand’s Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University and Turkey’s Anadolu University.
I have not tried to draw up a list of the mega-universities today, but I hope that, perhaps as a result of this summit, someone will continue to monitor this development. Unlike in the 1990s, when I wrote my book, there are now quite a number of institutions with student numbers in the range from 50 to 100 thousand. There are also various institutions that have passed the 100,000 mark since I wrote the book, such as the Allama Iqbal Open University in Pakistan and a number of the state open universities in India. I also note the emergence of a private, for-profit virtual university, Phoenix Online in the USA. At its present rate of growth this institution must be close to the 100,000 mark.
The Impact of the Mega-universities
The mega-universities are growing and multiplying, but what have they achieved? Have their achievements helped to address and solve the great educational problems of our time? I affirm that the answer is yes. Indeed, I consider that no educational innovation of the last fifty years comes close to university distance learning at scale – that is to say the mega-universities – in its impact on pressing problems.
What are those problems? I find it helpful to express them in what I call the eternal triangle of education. That is a triangle formed by three vectors: a vector of access, a vector of cost, and a vector of quality. I need say little to justify my choice of these challenges. Access to education remains a critical problem for most of the world’s population. It is a problem because education is a human right. It is a problem because education is the surest route to human development, community development and national development. When people cannot get an education both they and their communities lead poorer lives.
My principal task at UNESCO is to help our Member States to provide schooling to the hundreds of millions of children who do not get any, or who do not get enough to set them on the route to fulfilling lives. The problem is mirrored in higher education. A large proportion of the world’s population is under twenty and universities in the developing world, which already cannot cope, will soon be hit by a tidal wave of demand.
Lack of access is linked to my second vector: cost. Part of the reason that access is insufficient is that the cost is too high. The example of the universities in the developing world is clear. The legacy of the colonial powers was a model of university that is simply too expensive to be expanded to meet the demands of an age where a high proportion of people need higher education.
Finally, the third side of my triangle is quality. It is tied firmly to the other two.
Throughout history, until the development of the mega-universities, there has been an insidious link between quality and exclusivity. Both educators and the general public were convinced that you could not have quality in education without excluding most people from it. This is partly because of the belief that quality education has to be costly education.
Have our mega-universities managed to reshape this triangle? Have they managed to break the sad link between quality and exclusivity? Have they been able to increase access by cutting costs and maintaining or improving quality? If so, how have they done it? Then there is a question whose answer is very important to UNESCO: are those methods applicable to other levels of education?
I believe that the evidence of success is clear.
You only have to look at the numbers of students in the mega-universities to see a huge contribution to access. I noted earlier that there are more students in the UK Open University today than there were in all UK universities combined only forty years ago. If you total the students in IGNOU and all the state open universities in India I am sure that it is greater than the total number of students in all Indian universities not many years back.
But our critics would say that access is easy. The question is, what about cost and, most particularly, what about quality? I confess that I am not up to date with the literature on the costs of mega-universities, which has developed strongly in the last ten years, notably in India.
Economists have a special ability to make things complicated and costing open universities is no exception. Calculating the investment and operating costs of universities is reasonably straightforward, but the analysis becomes more difficult if you try to take into account all the costs and benefits to society.
For example, many mega-university students are employed and are contributing to the national economy through their work and their taxes. That is advantageous to society. On the other hand, since mega-university students are usually older, they will have less time to contribute the advantages of their studies to society through their work than younger graduates. All these considerations are important and the mega-universities ought to keep research on costs up to date. However, I am satisfied that, almost however you calculate it, the total cost per student in a mega-university is significantly less than in conventional universities.
For example, the UK commissioned an independent assessment of costs in the early 1990s and found that the total cost of a degree at the Open University was between 60 to 80% of costs in traditional institutions. I suspect that the difference is even greater in the other mega-universities. Indeed, when I wrote my book Mega-universities, I found that Indonesia’s Universitas Terbuka, even though it had a very low graduation rate, had a total cost per graduate that was one-third of the cost in conventional universities, while the cost per graduate to the state was less than 30% of the cost elsewhere.
Another piece of evidence is that some mega-universities – I think of STOU in Thailand – are almost financially independent of the state at the undergraduate level. Indeed, I should also note the case of the Open University of Hong Kong. OUHK is still some way from being a mega-university, yet it already requires little financial support from the Hong Kong government for its operating costs.
However, the key question is quality. Are the mega-universities giving a higher education of quality to their students and are these students succeeding in their courses and degrees in reasonable numbers? First, let us be clear that quality is not an automatic feature of mega-universities. There is no model of anything that produces quality without effort. The question is, can mega-universities achieve quality without sacrificing wide access and low cost?
I mentioned the case of Universitas Terbuka. I think it is fair to say that when the Indonesian authorities set up that institution they did not expect it to be an institution of quality. I believe that the same was true in the beginning of Korea’s National Open University. In those early days the governments were simply trying to provide a safety valve by offering some sort of higher education to the thousands of young people emerging from expanding school systems. The existing universities could not cope and there was need for a large-scale solution that would absorb those who could not get into the other universities. You could say that they were set up to be low quality operations.
However, in other jurisdictions quality was a prime consideration. In India for instance, the Indira Gandhi National Open University was intended to be a beacon of quality that would show the shoddy correspondence schools of the traditional Indian universities that distance learning could be done well. Indeed, IGNOU was given a role in the management of those other institutions in order to be able to help them smarten up their quality.
Similarly in the UK, those who set up the Open University were determined that it should be as good as the best. But intentions are not the same as performance. I hope that one of the topics for discussion at this summit meeting will be the performance of your institutions in relation to your national quality assurance systems. What I can say is that the intentions of the founders of the UK Open University became the reality. I was delighted that by the time I left the UKOU in 2001 it had risen to tenth place, among more than a hundred UK universities, when the quality of teaching programmes were assessed by an independent state-sanctioned body.
I am even more pleased that since I left the UKOU has continued its rise and is now ranked at number five. This is a remarkable achievement when you remember that some people ridiculed the creation of the UKOU and other mega-universities thirty years ago. The impact is even more astonishing when you combine measures of quality and access. Like other mega-universities, the UKOU has large numbers of students. That means that if you add up all the students in UK universities who are studying in programmes that are rated as excellent in various subjects, you find that in disciplines as varied as Music, Earth Sciences, and Social Policy, a majority of all students in excellent programmes are Open University students.
But I return to my earlier point. Quality and excellence are never automatic. I do detect, however, that those mega-universities which did not start out with high ambitions for quality have been inspired by the example of the others.
It seems that all countries are now encouraging their mega-universities to aspire for high quality because they know it can be done.
I conclude therefore, that the mega-universities can and have achieved a revolution in education by increasing access, cutting cost, and improving quality – all at the same time. My eternal triangle has been reconfigured in a way that holds out great hope for humankind.
The Secret of the Mega-universities
Let me finish with a few words on how I believe the mega-universities have done this. What is their secret?
Contrary to what some critics say, they have not done it by dehumanising education. Mega-universities are not soulless education factories. What they have done is to combine the human, the technological and the organisational in a powerful way. They have understood and taken advantage of a fundamental characteristic of human learning.
Learning is a blend of two types of activities. First, there are activities that the learner conducts independently, such as reading a book, viewing a TV programme, listening to a lecture or an audio-cassette, writing an essay, working at the computer, or doing mathematical calculations.
These activities constitute the bulk of the student’s learning, at least in higher education. They are also – and this is the key – activities that allow you to use technology to increase access, improve quality and cut costs. That is because the basic tools of independent learning such as print, computer software, audio material and TV programmes cost relatively little to reproduce in volume once you’ve made the investment in the first copy. Volume helps to increase access and cut costs. It also allows you to improve quality, because once you are producing materials at scale you can afford to invest in making them excellent.
The evidence shows, however, that most learners do not succeed on independent activities alone. Technology must involve people and their social systems. You also need interactive activities. ‘Interactive’ is a very slippery word that gets a lot of abuse. I use it to mean a situation where an activity by the student evokes a response by another human being – a teacher, a tutor, or another student – that is specifically tailored to that particular student.
Today is an obvious example. Right now, as you listen to me you are each involved in independent learning. When we finish and you challenge me with questions or observations that will be an interactive activity. Other interactive activities are face-to-face sessions with other students or a tutor, having your assignment marked and commented on by a teacher, asking questions over the phone, getting a response to a query by e-mail, and so on.
These kinds of activities are vital to the success of most students. However, they are also more expensive because they do not lend themselves to economies of scale in the same way as independent activities. Making twenty extra copies of a CD-ROM costs almost nothing whereas additional interactive activities require more people.
I believe that this simple distinction between independent and interactive activities is the key to designing successful educational systems for the challenges of today. Each type of activity has its own cost structure. Independent activities require high investment costs but have low marginal costs. Interactive activities have low investment costs but high marginal costs. You can blend them to get the cost balance that you want.
The two types of activity also make different contributions to quality. You need both, so the challenge is to try to move the cost structure of interactive activities nearer to that of independent activities. That is why computers and the Internet are so exciting for mega-universities. Most of what we call interactive computing is not really interactive because if you and I make the same keystrokes we will get the same response. However, we can now see the prospect of computer systems that will react to us as individuals, as a good human tutor does.
That is very exciting, but that is another story for another talk.
My purpose today is simply to affirm that the mega-universities represent a revolution in education because they have achieved the goal that has eluded education throughout history, to educate more people, better, and at lower cost. You should be proud of what your mega-universities have achieved. Mega-universities are having a mega impact on access, cost and quality. They are a source of inspiration for all of humankind as it seeks to exercise the right to education.
Daniel, John S (1996) Mega-universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education, Kogan Page, London 212 pp.