Free Higher Education Is What the People Want | From the Bell Tower

But can it actually work?
Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA -- Library Journal, 3/18/2010

Free, according to Chris Anderson, is the new model for how business will work in the future.

Could free, as in absolutely no cost to the student, ever work for higher education? No one knows for sure, but at least one innovator is a believer. Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur, is the founder of the University of the People (UotP), the world's first global, tuition-free online university.

There are countries where higher education is free to the students and their families, but not really. Taxes far higher than our own, such as those added to gasoline (as in the Scandinavian countries) or other essentials are what really fund the salaries and materials required to support colleges and universities. Reshef’s institution really is free because, in essence, all the resources are provided free by their creators. The courses, the technology infrastructure, the registration process, virtually everything it takes to deliver higher education, is free. But will it work?

A year later
When I first learned about the UotP I had to admit being skeptical. Those of us who work in higher education know how expensive it is to produce learning and scholarship. If the academic world is profoundly challenged to create a sustainable free, open access scholarly publishing system—which everyone acknowledges must be financially supported by someone or some organization somewhere along the knowledge production chain—then how can we possibly devise a working system of free higher education?

Talk about a wicked problem. It is an overwhelming and perhaps impossible task to be sure, but perhaps that is what drives Reshef to conquer it. Why bother? To bring higher education to the people of the world whose own countries either have no higher education system or one that is in utter shambles.

Now that the first year of operation for the University of the People is coming to a close, what are the future prospects for this incredible venture?

Gaining traction
To date the UotP has admitted 380 from 50 countries out of nearly 3000 that applied. How does it work? According to an article from Inside Higher Ed, “The University of the People relies on free syllabuses and learning materials from open courseware projects from institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It currently offers only two programs, business administration and computer science, and employs only five paid instructors. Those instructors administer courses designed by a corps of faculty volunteers numbering about 800, by Reshef’s count. Those professors put together courses using open courseware.”

A small amount of revenue is earned in the form of nominal student fees for exams and admissions. According to Reshef it will take nearly 15,000 students to make UotP viable.

One other small thing would help to make UotP a viable institution of higher education: actual degrees. As described in this article from BusinessWeek, while it does have students on track to earn two and four-year degrees in the two existing programs, “no degrees will be granted until the university obtains proper authorization from relevant authorities…. Obtaining accreditation is a top priority for the school, says Reshef, noting that the school is incorporated in Pasadena, Calif., making it easier for the school to work with American accreditation agencies.”

Where are academic libraries in the free equation?
For-profit, online higher education firms have already proven that a brick & mortar library is no longer a necessity, even to achieve accreditation. As long as the institution can demonstrate it offers students access to some sort of commercial information resources, possibly with toll-free help from a virtual librarian, it’s sufficient for the accreditors. It’s widely accepted that online learners just tap the Internet or local libraries when they need to complete a research paper. That’s exactly what the creators of the UotP must be counting on when it comes to library services.

It’s hard to imagine any institution calling itself a school—especially one of higher learning—when it has not even one physical book to offer its students. But we find ourselves in a boldly different world of learning, where books and libraries no longer carry the symbolic weight they once did. The absence of traditional libraries and learning materials from free universities will hardly slow down the growth of the UotP and other experiments in free higher education.

Supporting a worthy cause
Given that UotP promotes and delivers higher education to those who have no other options, there are distinct parallels with the open access and open education movements—both efforts to provide educational materials to those who otherwise have little chance to access them. This is an institution that will never have a budget for expensive books and journals and profession librarians to manage them. Perhaps those of us who already have these resources should examine ways in which we can use them to support the students at UotP. For example, we could allow students from UotP to receive a higher level of support through our virtual reference services. Our interlibrary loan networks could award the UotP’s of the world via some sort of “partner” status allowing its students to receive free article delivery.

Its impact on the market of traditional providers of higher education is infinitesimally minute, so UotP presents no threat—today. But free higher education is a powerful idea, and would be irresistible to many. The question is whether free higher education is an idea that actually works. With just one year at this scale, it is too soon to tell.

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