The Case for Free Access to Higher Education

In September, Cape Breton University hosted a Royal Society of Canada (Atlantic) symposium entitled Who or What Does Higher Education Serve? The symposium heard from a range of perspectives; one of the most compelling was that of Dalhousie Student Union Vice President John Hutton. He called for a new, intergenerational ‘social contract’ where the cost of investments in higher education no longer falls unfairly on the young and marginalised, and where policy makers pay more serious attention to the value of a more educated and inclusive society for all.

Building on Hutton’s argument, my own contribution focused on the inevitability of free access to university education. I argued that free access will emerge in part because that is how to deliver broader societal goals—establishing social equity and labour mobility within a highly educated, knowledge-intensive society. Perhaps just as importantly, it will arise as a direct result of economic, social, and technological change.

Increasing Demands for Value for Money Will Drive the Unbundling of Higher Ed

In his 2015 book College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, Ryan Craig describes in some detail the technological and consumer pressures that he believes will drive dramatic change in higher education in the US, and by extension the rest of the world. Much of his argument is based on the history of airlines, IT, and cable industries where markets for premium, all-inclusive products have been successfully undercut by ‘unbundled’ products providing no frills experiences. Think about the discount airlines that now charge separately for meals, baggage, and even boarding passes.

Craig runs University Ventures, a New York-based investment fund that specialises in profiting from these changes, so he may be forgiven for a certain level of exuberance for the PSE revolution he is predicting. But it is hard to argue with much of his analysis.

Public investment in higher education is stalling in most of the English-speaking world, and tuition and student debt (at least among students from poorer backgrounds) is rising inexorably. Recently published research shows that even the best-endowed US universities leave their poorest students with significant debt.[1]

In response, private sector entrants are emerging to provide alternative pathways through higher education and on to employment. Add to this the unlimited potential for social network-enabled connections between employers and students with access to flexible credentialing (e.g., via platforms like LinkedIn) and the growing availability of ‘free’ online educational resources, and the future of the traditional four-year degree appears to be seriously under threat.

Craig foresees a world with a two-tier higher ed system made up of elite institutions, which can justify packaging a top educational experience with spectacular campuses and other intangible benefits that command a very high price point, and ‘the rest.’ Central to Craig’s vision is the proliferation of free online university courses that he believes will put further pressure on ‘the rest’ to reform their business models.

The University of Everywhere?

The educational arguments for and against MOOCs have been well rehearsed in both scholarly and popular articles.[2] Much of the criticism has been aimed at the very low completion rates and the predominance of already degree-qualified learners (80%) who tend to be based in developed (i.e., OECD) countries (60%).[3]

But in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why?[4] Coursera’s Chen Zhenghao and colleagues show that critics may be missing the main point, which is that MOOC learners—wherever they are based—are indulging their interests for very specific educational and career-related reasons, not because they would really prefer to be in university full time.

In a survey of 52,000 MOOC learners, 72% of respondents reported career benefits and 61% reported educational benefits. Of those actively seeking career-related benefits, 26% claimed that MOOC-based learning helped them get a new job and 9% said it helped them start their own business. These are very tangible benefits when compared with conventional university classroom experiences.

Kevin Casey, author of The End of College, takes the rapid emergence of free educational resources to a more radical conclusion than would be claimed by even the most enthusiastic advocates for MOOCs. In a National Public Radio interview back in March, Casey asserted: "the idea of 'admission' to college will become an anachronism, because the University of Everywhere will be open to everyone … educational resources that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free."

Such views have earned Casey some withering criticism. And yet there is a real phenomenon emerging here that speaks to a fundamentally different model of higher education—one that is potentially more accessible, less expensive, and more intimately linked to the specific career and educational aspirations of learners of all ages and capabilities.

The question remains: what will all of this look like for today’s non-elite institutions entering the brave new world of unbundled, technology-enhanced higher education?

Re-Establishing Universities for the Public Good

As I have argued in this forum, it makes no sense for advanced economies to create barriers to entry to higher education for their own citizens—particularly those from poorer backgrounds and marginalised groups. Canada is in a minority of OECD countries that charge tuition for higher education. Furthermore, it is at least arguable that, whatever may have been the assumed ‘social contract’ in the past (people with university degrees earn more on average in the long term and therefore should not worry about debt on graduation), the contract is now in urgent need of an overhaul.

If Canada wishes to maintain national competitiveness and labour mobility even as we maximise the entrepreneurial spirit, civic engagement, and life chances of our youth, a new social contract will be required. So I believe that Hutton and other student leaders are right to advocate the moral and practical case for a reset.

In support of these arguments, I would draw attention to the generally high level of commitment of universities and individual academics in Canada and around the world to the public good. Given the points raised earlier on technology-enabled learning, one interesting example of that commitment is the recent emergence of OERu—the university for open educational resources.

Backed by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, OERu is an essentially philanthropic collaboration between universities located primarily in Africa, Australasia, Europe, and North America. Each partner institution makes freely available some of its regular online classes and agrees to enroll students wherever they are based, so long as they have a reliable internet connection.

The clue to how OERu may grow into a major, worldwide phenomenon with significant disruptive potential is contained in the description of how it works for the learner: "you can study online, for free, from anywhere in the world. You can also pay reduced fees, if you want to gain academic credit—and you only pay for assessment when you’re ready."

The notion of paying for academic credit rather than paying to access knowledge poses fundamental questions for universities. For if it applies to online learning, why would it not also apply to classroom-based learning where the knowledge conveyed may be made readily accessible to large numbers of students anyway, either through streaming technology or physical presence?

Some universities already teach several hundred undergraduates in some first-year classes. Why would a university committed to public educational ideals not similarly open up its classrooms to active learners, regardless of their degree registration status?

Clearly those of us who are committed to developing appropriate models for the ‘university of the future’ in a way that maintains our essential public purpose, but which transcends the tsunami of technological, social and economic changes to come, have a good deal of thinking to do.[5] The current model, which is over-reliant on the traditional four-year degree, is clearly under threat—as is the funding model that supports it.

So I believe we now need a wide range of experiments in open access and free provision that complement rather than undermine our existing models. This must include both online offerings and those requiring physical presence in the classroom. And we need to get a lot smarter in creating flexible pathways for learners regardless of institutional starting point, exit qualification intentions, and geographical location.

University education in the future will undoubtedly still include semi-prescribed four-year journeys for 18 year olds. But it will increasingly be based on a much deeper understanding of the knowledge acquisition, skills development, and credentialing aspects of a postsecondary experience for each individual learner, whether they are full-time or part-time, young or mature, in work or out of work, physically present or at a distance.


  1. According to Annie Waldman and Sisi Wei of ProPublica, more than a quarter of the 60 wealthiest US universities leave their low-income students owing an average of more than $20,000 in federal loans. See Colleges Flush With Cash Saddle Poorest Students With Debt.
  2. See for example a recently published study by MIT and commentary in The Atlantic magazine.
  3. MOOCs can be sourced through growing variety of websites including Coursera, EdX, iTunes U, Open2Study, Udacity and Udemy.
  4. Chen Zhenghao, Brandon Alcorn, Gayle Christensen, Nicholas Eriksson, Daphne Koller and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, 2015. Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why?
  5. In a salient development for Canada, eCampus Ontario has just been launched with 13,000 online courses and a proposed $72 M of investment in technical and learner support. It aims to significantly enhance transferability of credits between institutions and therefore represents an important building block for the future of tuition-free higher education, even if it is not designed that way today.

David Wheeler is the President of Cape Breton University. A former international business executive, Wheeler was previously Dean of Management at Dalhousie University and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) and Executive Dean of Business at the University of Plymouth (UK).

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