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With tuition fees rising, applications down and the annual scramble for places through the clearing system well underway , it seems an appropriate time to re-ignite the debate on the future of Higher Education.

Let’s start with yet another acronym: MOOC. If you haven’t heard it yet, then I’ll guarantee that you will do so within the next 12 months. It stands for ‘Massive Open Online Course’ and many people believe that it is the future of higher education. If it sounds like The Open University with a few bells and whistles, then think again. MOOCs are free to join (although there may be some charges for accreditation), and they are open to anyone – all you need is an internet connection.

Mooc

MOOCs leverage the power of the internet to make available huge amounts of material and a wide choice of assignments and lectures are given by video. All work, thoughts and ideas are shared and collaboration is encouraged and indeed is a key part of the concept. Some of the most well-known universities in the USA are amongst the early MOOC adopters and I’m sure it won’t be long before UK universities take the plunge. Perhaps there’s still a chance for me to get a degree from Cambridge!

So will MOOCs transform higher education? Well they probably won’t work for courses where practical skill development is essential (I am not sure I would want to be treated by a doctor who only had a MOOC to their name), but they clearly represent a very exciting alternative to a bricks and mortar establishment. It will be fascinating to see how the concept develops over the next couple of years.

But if a MOOC is not for you, then an increasing number of commercial organisations are sponsoring selected young managers through degrees and other similar qualifications. It’s a real win/win situation. The learner achieves the same qualification as their peers whilst earning a salary and not being saddled with debt. The employer retains talented individuals within the company and can continue to develop their “soft skills” and their understanding of the business world.

Finally, the launch of high-level Apprenticeships provides learners with the final step in a career path which less than a decade ago could only have been reached via a university degree. I am a great believer in these higher-level qualifications because they provide a genuine counter to the argument that Apprenticeships are just an excuse for companies to draw down government funding to carry out training they would have done anyway. Higher-level Apprenticeships require sustained commitment from learners and considerable investment by their employers.

So, as bleak as it may seem. young people leaving school and seeking higher education actually have an array of choices available to them.  Of course, many will still opt for a traditional university education. But I suspect that alternative routes will increase rapidly over the next few years.

I also remain convinced that there are many ways to introduce technology into different areas of higher education. We feel we have made a start by developing a technological solution for the Functional Skills element of the Apprenticeship programme but quite clearly there will be other opportunities in the future where technology can add value to the expanding range of higher education qualifications. Happy MOOCing!

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