Richard Heller

How Australian universities could stop inequality and save the planet in one easy move

To address the global inequalities in access to higher education, I propose an Australian-led network for global online learning. A collaboration of Australian universities would offer online education to low- to middle-income populations, at large scale and low cost, with long-term benefits for future enrolments and global soft power.

As an example of global inequalities, access to higher education in Africa is one quarter of the global average. The importance of improving the education standards of the population to Africa and other regions with poor access does not need to be stated.

Australian universities are over-reliant on overseas student fees. This was demonstrated by the Covid pandemic which led to at least a temporary reduction in student numbers, with possible long-term loss of overseas students. The dependence on China as a source of international students is also a risk, given variations in geopolitical priorities. Given these concerns, the current policy whereby universities cross subsidise other activities such as research from overseas student fees is risky and likely to be unsustainable. Using student fee income from low-income countries to support universities and the broader economy in high-income countries such as Australia is unstainable and of questionable ethics. 

The Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 is completely focused on the economic benefits to Australia from bringing international students to Australia, with no mention of the potential to reduce global inequalities in access to higher education.

Looking to the future, global populations will change. By 2100, Nigeria will have a larger population than China. Half of the current African countries will have doubled in size by 2050

Offering education that is clearly focused on building capacity in low- to middle-income populations rather than on earning income for ourselves own would likely raise the profile of Australian higher education and have future benefits in attracting students. This would also have the potential for more general soft power impacts. The Australian Government does offer scholarships for international students, as do many individual universities, but these are highly competitive and do not include online courses. They constitute only a small proportion of the large number of more than 450,000 overseas students who come to Australia each year.

My recent open access book, The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education, makes the case for a pivot from face-to-face to online education. There are many opportunities that this would create, including for education to be offered to a global audience at scale. 

An important consideration about bringing international students to study in a high-income country is the resulting high carbon footprint. This arises from travel and higher consumption patterns. My colleagues and I recently showed that a small cohort of only 128 international students who studied online rather than travelling to the UK for a master’s programme saved nearly a million kg of CO2, even without counting the contribution from their exposure to the physical university with its large carbon footprint.

I propose a programme which would increase global access to education – a network for global online learning. The driver, rather than to generate income from overseas students, would be to increase access to education among those in low- to middle-income countries where access is currently low. Student fees would thus have to be lower than at present. This can be justified by taking a long-term view of potential benefits to universities and the host country as discussed above, the realisation that the costs would be marginal as universities could utilise courses already in existence initially, and the suggestion that each partner need only provide part of the programme. A small increase in the amount of money the Australian Government and individual universities currently spend on scholarships could support such a programme. 

At present, universities compete with each other for international students, due to the competitive business model under which they operate. The creation of a network for global online learning focused on international students would depend on universities having the courage to collaborate rather than complete, to realise the power of collaboration. 

Although research is a more common area for collaboration, there are a number of examples of universities collaborating to offer education,  The Biostatistics Collaboration of Australia is an excellent example – students can enrol in, and graduate from, any of five Universities and access a common online curriculum. This approach differs from Open Universities Australia whose main task appears just to help students find appropriate online courses at Australian universities. Universitas 21, a global partnership which includes four Australian universities, offers a global online (non-degree) programme co-produced by a number of universities with an external partner.

What would the network for online global learning look like?

  • Australian universities would collaborate with each other as the key drivers of the network. 
  • Ideally other universities in the Global North and South and other ‘industry’ partners such as Non Governmental Organisations, and relevant governments and ministries would join the network.
  • Degrees would be offered by each University or created by a combination of courses from different network partners.
  • Students, as individuals or groups from industry partners, would enrol in award streams through a university of their choice even if the programme is made up from courses from a number of providers. 
  • Start with just one or two subject areas of relevance to those in the Global South, as proof of concept, and if successful build to scale. 
  • Develop an infrastructure to include IT support and a light touch quality assurance process.

A great deal more work is required to explore the potential for the idea of a network for online global learning. I call on interested parties to come together to think about this. Maybe Open Universities Australia or Universitas 21 would take on this challenge and lead the kind of collaborative network I have been describing?

Richard Heller is Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Newcastle, Australia and Manchester, UK. He has been involved in educational programmes to build pubic health capacity in low- to middle-income population throughout his career. In Newcastle this was through the International Clinical Epidemiology Network. As Professor of Public Health in Manchester he set up the University’s first online master’s degree. On retirement he founded and coordinated the fully online volunteer led Peoples-uni educational charity, offering master’s and continuing professional development awards. His recent open access book is The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education.