However, with increased competition, a tough regulatory context and a growing imperative to demonstrate increased impact for students, we cannot rest on our laurels. As the former Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said, "Britain's universities have a vital role to play in generating the knowledge and skills needed to fuel our economy. They are a great national asset, but there can be no room for complacency." If we are to keep pace with our international competitors we must ensure that we also keep pace with the changing needs of our learners.
According to Universities UK International (UUKi), more than 700,000 students were studying for UK degrees outside of the UK during the 2016-17 academic year. This is in part due to strong growth in online education over the past decade. As dozens of our institutions launch major online offerings during the coming year, it is imperative that we ensure exceptional quality. I shared three crucial ingredients during my remarks at UUKi's recent Managing TNE Finances event:
Recruiting the right-fit students. Students who wish to study on campus will still choose to do so and it is imperative that they are able to benefit from the social and other benefits of this conventional mode of study. Learners who choose online study are very different. Online students are typically unable to travel to campus for myriad reasons – working adults with careers and children, inability to secure visas or a disability are the primary factors. For example, the average student studying on a Keypath-enabled degree is 36 years old, and 93% are in work. Thus, online programmes do not compete with on-ground courses but, rather, they widen access to an audience that could never study in person. This is not competition, it is a brand-new way of reaching out to a very different demographic. International marketing campaigns for online programmes must embrace the search engine optimisation, pay-per-click and other digital outreach necessary to pinpoint these qualified students while admissions processes must embrace the multiple intakes, flexible study paths and alternative finance options required by non-traditional entrants. By adapting to serve these students we increase student mobility, retraining/reskilling and, thereby, the prosperity of economies where students are accessing online learning.
Deliver an incomparable student experience. There is a myth that online learning is impersonal. In fact, with well-trained academics, the effective application of learner analytics and bespoke student support, online learning can – in some ways – be more personal than on-campus learning. Beginning with the admissions process, students should have one point of contact throughout their journey. Their advisor will become familiar with their personal situation and allow them to enrol at different points throughout the year, pay in various ways and study flexibly around their circumstances. Data analytics will advise when students need an additional touchpoint, a reminder on payment or even a birthday card. The technology enables us to identify trends and behaviours we could not spot on-campus, while the student support and other staff ensure that the engagement remains personal. It is this forensic and dedicated methodology which has led to the 94% retention rate on Keypath-enabled programmes and inspires more learners to choose online study from UK universities each year.
Design exceptional programmes. Online programmes should be immersive, adaptive, bite-sized and modular. That is how people think and learn in any environment, but especially online. "The learning experience needs to be just as rich as the classroom, despite the potential lack of immediacy," says Helen Higson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Aston University - a Keypath partner. "We do this with advanced online materials and lots of online and telephone support, as well as having graduate teaching assistants and PhD students available." Naturally effective training and support for those individuals is imperative; as I wrote in a piece for the Times Higher Education last year, "online programmes are about the people not the technology."
Successful online programmes require bold and ambitious action to fundamentally reimagine all aspects of course selection, instructional design, marketing, admissions, finance, student support and other areas. Our universities have launched hundreds of online programmes over the past decade, however, most have been based on the passions of an individual academic rather than a concerted institutional will to expand access, innovation and choice for students. This is now changing. It is inspiring to see our universities launching high-quality online initiatives. Delivered well they will not only increase student numbers and diversify balance sheets, they will also keep our exceptional higher education sector at the vanguard of the world.