OECD education head: pandemic disruption should mean lower fees

With the key selling point of university – meeting people and having a ‘great experience’ – now gone, Andreas Schleicher sees high fees as unjustified and?calls for more government investment

June 22, 2020
OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher
Source: Getty

One of the world’s most influential voices on higher education policy has said tuition fees should be cut after coronavirus lockdowns removed the key reason students attend university – to meet top academics, mingle with interesting fellow students and to have a “great experience”.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said that restrictions on physical contact threatened the entire rationale for university education, leaving institutions vulnerable to competition from IT firms that could offer better online learning.

“If universities stay closed down for the next academic year, I think that will raise very serious questions over the value proposition they offer,” he told Times Higher Education.

Students attend prestigious – and expensive – universities to “meet the most amazing professors in the world” and “brilliant students from all over the world”.

“If that gets lost, what will remain?” he asked. The unique value of university for students was “the conversations that you had, not those courses that you take”, he added.

High-fee universities, such as those in the US and UK, are facing a collapse in international student numbers, potential mass deferments from domestic students and calls for refunds as they struggle to return to normal social and academic campus life.

“From a student perspective, £9,000 is certainly not the value of an online course,” he said, referring to the annual cost of English universities.

In light of this, he said, it would be “reasonable for governments to increase their investment in higher education” given that the return for taxpayers remained “strong”.

He stressed that he was not advocating zero fees, however: “I do think that cost sharing will have to change. There’s a strong case for lower fees and more government contribution.”

Mr Schleicher was one of the most prominent voices to give qualified support to the UK government’s decision to hike tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012, and OECD backing was cited by the government to bolster its case for the change.

He also warned universities that because the move online had removed universities’ key selling point – physical contact and experience – they were now at risk of being overtaken by other players.

Unless private universities, in particular, could “solve” the “problem” of physical distancing, “I think we’re going to see a big problem”, he said.

Following the lockdown, “some of the online learning universities provided was questionable” and “not so convincing”, he said.

“If the model is the delivery of online content, then you will have big IT companies taking charge of the sector,” he argued.

Other than an on-campus experience, universities do still offer value to students in the form of credentials they can show to employers, he acknowledged. “But I think that’s going to erode anyway – and [it will do so] faster when employers realise there are alternatives,” Mr Schleicher added.

He also expressed surprise at how cautiously universities were reopening their campuses. “Social distancing is easier for universities than a primary school,” he said. “If you open restaurants and cinemas, but not universities, I can’t see the logic.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: OECD education head: cut fees to maintain value

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Reader's comments (4)

Students attend prestigious universities in the UK so that they can have them appear on their CV. I believe that I often got job interviews because of what successful completion of a qualification at a top university said about me. The factors quoted in the article are bonuses that will be reduced for at least the next year but the long term effect of having "a good degree from a good university" will still be there.
I am surprised that UK students have not already protested the expectation to pay £ 9000+ tuition fee for what amounts to distance learning.
My mother told me that she felt nervous about going up to study at the University of Edinborough in 1939 - she felt that the impending war would curtail the 'social' aspects of university life. Yet she went, enjoyed her 4 years and came out with an MA and a diploma in sociology... We all have to cope with whatever is going on at the time, the inherent resilience that is part of being human means that we find ways to mitigate any problems. Whilst some people may feel it's not "fair" to have to pay regular fees, let them pause and consider what they are paying for. It's not the parties, they are paying for their education. Delivering a blended or fully-online undergraduate degree programme to the standard necessary is NOT cheaper than herding students into lecture theatres and laboratories.
I agree with comment #3 which makes a lot of sense. The massive effort required to reconstruct learning content for smooth and effective delivery on a digital platform is testing academic and technical services teams across the world to the limit. It is slightly dispiriting to hear that some people think that all this effort is not worth the same as teaching in person. For some students it will provide an opportunity to learn at one's own pace; for others, it will provide a trigger to take greater ownership of their learning journey and accelerate into areas that are not always accessible 'during normal teaching hours'. No matter what happens, the final degree awarded will still be as valuable and useful as it ever was.

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