The Situation

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ll already have heard that from next year, university tuition fees in England will rise to £9250.

You might think this is nothing much to worry about. The last fee rise, in 2011, almost tripled the upper limit from £3,290 to £9000 and gave an entire generation of young people a heart attack. A raise of £250 seems pretty tame by comparison.

However, the raise paves the way for fees to increase incrementally every year, so that they’ll hit £10,000 within the next few years – and keep on rising.

Plus, the changes aren’t limited to new students – they could affect those already at university, who won’t have planned for this extra expenditure. Universities such as Durham are already advertising the increased price for 2017/18 for all their students.

The government has doubled up the blow to students this week by axing the maintenance grant for students from lower-income backgrounds.

It’s been replaced with a maintenance loan, meaning that poorer students will leave university with more debt than those who’re better off.

The average debt faced by graduates is already estimated at £44,000, a terrifying number for most people – and particularly those from lower-income backgrounds who may have watched their families struggle with debt growing up.

The result is less students from poorer families getting the education they deserve. There was a distinct decline in the number of state school students going to university after the fee rise in 2011, so it’s likely that the smaller but surer incremental tuition increases over the coming years will eventually add up to a negative effect on social mobility.

So what does this mean for the future of higher education?

The Solution

With debt a huge deterrent to people seeking further education, the solution could be a turn away from traditional face-to-face further learning and towards cheaper, more flexible online learning – be it through independent companies like us, or through universities offering online degree courses.

Professor Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of online education giant Coursera, believes that leading universities will start offering undergraduate degrees fully online within the next five years.

Currently, hundreds of leading universities offer short online courses through Coursera, but most result in a certificate rather than a degree or equivalent qualification – not so impressive or useful when it comes to finding employment.

And while our courses are perfectly suited to those wanting a vocational qualification in professional subjects like HR, marketing or accounting, if you want a Physics or English Literature degree, you’re going to have to shell out for uni – with no likelihood that you’ll ever make enough to pay it back.

With students in need of a way to get a university degree without facing piles of debt, the demand is very obviously there. Now we just need the supply.

What could online university degrees look like?

The university model would likely be much the same as ours, with course materials, live classrooms, tutor support and student discussion all available online.

Exams could be sat in the traditional way, in a physical exam hall with invigilators casting a beady eye over students for any hint of cheating.

Or, they could make use of new technology called e-Proctoring, which we use in our fitness courses. This allows students to sit their exams from home by first scanning the room they’re in with a webcam to make sure there aren’t any textbooks or notes around. The program also shuts down access to everything but the exam, so you can’t google the answers on the sly.

One of the main concerns many have about online learning is the lack of face-to-face interaction and collaboration between students and professors.

However, the vast majority of a student’s time at university isn’t spent in one-on-one or small group conversation with professors, but rather watching lectures alongside hundreds of their fellow students, or studying independently.

Learning online is commonplace to many students already: almost every university hosts course materials online, and many film lectures so that students can watch or re-watch them in their own time.

If a fully online degree course was offered, weekly tutorials could easily be replaced with virtual classrooms where students and professors can interact via video link, similar to Skype.

There are signs that the revolution is beginning already: the University of Leeds allows students to gain credits towards a degree through online study, while students at Arizona State University can take the first year of their degree online.

So Oxford, Cambridge, if you need any advice… we’ll show you how it’s done.