British universities should disrupt the US model of gated access to higher education

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In theory, the digital age means that knowledge is more accessible than it’s ever been before. However, that is to reckon without the higher education sector, which, though a massive recipient of taxpayer and philanthropic funding, is doing everything it can to put academic knowledge behind paywalls.

Tuition fees we’re already familiar with. Those, however, don’t include the highly inflated price of textbooks. Gated access to academic journals is another money spinner. But not content with all of that, the US sector has found a new way of extracting cash from students.

It all revolves around the use of digital platforms to provide course content – this includes the setting of assignments, online quizzes and exams, and even the automated marking of course work and tests.

This new technology has a great deal of potential, but as Laura McKenna explains in the Atlantic, students in the US are being made to pay through the nose for it:

“Along with the traditional textbooks, many college classes now require students to purchase access codes—which cost $100 on average…”

“…as demonstrated in a new report by Student PIRGs, a collection of college student-run advocacy groups that works alongside U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, students are starting to question their merits: The access codes threaten to exacerbate the already-high cost of college materials, undermining the used-book market and reshaping the college experience.”

It’s not just the price of the access codes that’s a concern, but also the way in which they’re sold:

“…they often come bundled with the associated textbook, students are then forced to buy that textbook, even if they otherwise wouldn’t because they already have a copy or could find a cheaper version elsewhere. What’s more, because access codes expire at the end of the semester and cannot be reused, if a student drops, withdraws from, or fails a class and wants to retake it, she must purchase that code again.”

The irony is that these digital platforms could be used to loosen, not tighten, the institutional stranglehold on higher education. Online access not just to course texts, but assessment and tuition too, could spread the benefits of a university education across the world.

America’s elite academic institutions seem determined to see just how far they go in privileging and monetising access to knowledge; but British universities are in an good position to fully harness the internet and create a disruptive, open-source, model of higher education. Three key advantages immediately come to mind:

Of course, all of this will require money. If this isn’t to be extracted from students, where will it come from? An appropriate source would be the UK’s overseas aid budget.  The UK is the only G7 (and G20) nation to meet the UN’s 0.7% target for aid spending. Currently, this cashes out at around £13 billion per annum. What if just one tenth of that were allocated to an online, open-source higher education service?

Year by year, that would build up into the world’s most advanced learning resource – one available to millions around the planet currently excluded from academia’s ivory tower.