Exeter has become the first elite university in Britain to introduce an extensive programme of online degrees, with the first three courses starting in September. Master of science degrees in finance and management, international business and marketing will be the first on offer to postgraduates, with dozens of subjects available online by 2027.
Anyone who thinks that this is a cut-price way to gain a university qualification should think again. The fees will be set at £18,000, the same rate as learning on campus. However, students will be spared the costs of accommodation and leaving home. They will also be able to study at a time of their choosing. It is expected that most of those signing up for the first three courses will be studying while working — in many cases, overseas. India, Singapore and the rest of Asia are target areas.
Tim Quine, deputy vice-chancellor, said it was a “big, big moment” for Exeter. “This is exactly the same degree that postgraduates would get if they came here to study. You can’t tell the difference, although many of the students will want to make clear to employers that they have studied online. It is not a correspondence course. It’s a high quality and more cost-effective way to study,” he said. The online MSc course will run over two years instead of one year on campus, to allow for greater flexibility. Online students will be guaranteed the same number of hours of contact with course tutors, the same materials, teaching and assessment.
Next to be considered for online study will be master’s degrees in education and the sciences. Undergraduate degrees will also be considered, Professor Quine said. Many US universities already offer online courses but British institutions have been slow to follow them. Academics have feared that the quality of degrees would be diluted, or that online courses would be vulnerable to fraud with students getting someone else to write essays for them.
However, computer analysis can now detect whether work is original and authentic, and communication between course tutors and students is easy and reliable with good wifi.
The online programmes will be managed with Keypath Education, an international specialist in online degrees. Rajay Naik, Keypath’s European chief executive, said the popularity of Moocs (massive open online courses) and other forms of online study had led institutions to take such degrees seriously. “UK universities have been slow to embrace them but all universities are under pressure now from Mooc platforms in the US to come up with something. Seeing Exeter, which is in the top ten of the Russell Group, launching this programme shows things are changing,” he said.
Brexit was also playing a part, Mr Naik said. The number of non-EU international students studying in Britain is falling and there is uncertainty about immigration policy. Universities UK estimates that international students are worth up to £26 billion to the economy, with institutions generating £4.8 billion through international student fees in 2015. “Brexit means it is even more important for the UK to find innovative ways to attract international students,” Mr Naik said. “Gone are the days when online was a cheap alternative to conventional study. The 2020s will be the decade where elite digital education becomes the norm for anyone who doesn’t want to be tied to their local university.”