Filling Future Gaps in Student Numbers

A recent report by the UK-based Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) titled Horizon Scanning: What will HE look like in 2020? suggests that international recruitment for campus-based UK courses will peak by 2020. This is also broadly backed up by other research on the subject. UK universities have become so dependent on regular year-on-year rises in international student numbers that a static position is not one their finances are currently projecting.

The numbers of UK campus-based students are also likely to decline due to a falling birth rate, which could leave a 130,000 shortfall in current UK student numbers from 2015 onwards, according to head of UCAS Mary Curnock Cook in a recent article.

So where will future revenue increases for universities come from? Fighting for a bigger share of a static pool of students is one option, and for the top tier of universities this is potentially possible: working on international rankings, improving campus facilities and research excellence will all help. However, all these initiatives take money and resources and the results could be incrementally small.

Forward thinking UK universities are therefore examining the value of online course development to fill the gap and are looking at the success of programs in the US.

Many highly regarded US universities have embraced online course development, most notably at postgraduate level, where the opportunity to ‘earn and learn’ is highly appealing. Ensuring online courses are viewed as the equal of campus-based courses has been their main challenge, but with the excellent online learning platforms now available there can be confidence that the quality of the learning experience can be at a very high level.

Universities have shown that gaining relevant high level accreditation for online courses is certainly achievable. There are notable examples of online MBA’s with the same level of accreditation as their campus counterparts; in the US, WSU College of Business online MBA is accredited by AACSB, the same as the campus based MBA, and in the UK, Durham University Business school Global online MBA is triple accredited by AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS.

Perhaps the most exciting news for hard pressed universities is that recruitment for many online courses in the US is attracting a new type of student, and most of these students are simply are not interested in a purely campus-based course, for either personal or practical reasons. Through online learning there appears to be significant potential for not only filling universities’ gaps in student numbers but for increasing the overall student population and making it more diverse.