Is the University of New England’s MOOC legal?

Update 21 February: UNE VC Jim Barber advises me that UNE Open students will not be enrolling at UNE, and that DIISRTE is ok with UNE Open. I still think that current regulation is poorly designed for innovation in higher education, but it looks like this venture is OK to proceed.


Original 20 February post:

Today the University of New England announced an innovative new way of delivering higher education. Inspired by the MOOCs, it plans to unbundle its higher education services.

…through a new platform called UNE Open, UNE will [] begin offering a range of postgraduate and undergraduate units through open courseware…..UNE Open will offer a range of fee-for-service products alongside the open courseware, including tutorial support, examinations and, ultimately, students may choose to have their learning recognized for credit into a UNE degree

Vice-Chancellor Jim Barber’s op-ed on his plans is here. I think this is an excellent initiative. But in offering its services this way, UNE is moving into uncertain legal territory.

Problem #1 is that under section 19-85 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 universities are supposed to charge every student who enrols in a unit of study. They can offer ‘scholarships’ to bring the price back down, but that significantly complicates this ‘freemium’ model.

UNE can argue that the open courseware is not a unit of study, defined as a ‘subject or unit that a person may undertake with a higher education provider as part of a course of study’. Just studying the curriculum materials online could not lead to recognition as a unit in a course of study, but if students have the possibility of examination and academic credit then arguably it is a unit of study.

Perhaps UNE could create a legal workaround in which students don’t actually formally enrol, they just take the unit without enrolling. However, even this is skating on thin legal ice. At a course of study level, enrolled is defined to include ‘undertaking’ the course of study. Again, we hit the problem of the closer the ‘undertaking’ gets to academic credit the more it looks like an enrolment and something to which section 19-85 applies.

Problem #2 is that under section 36-55 of HESA 2003 there is a floor price of the highest student contribution amount for a Commonwealth-supported student unless the student could not have enrolled as an award (ie degree) student. I’m not sure how this provision is intended to be applied. People already enrolled in degrees at UNE for which the unit in question is relevant are covered I think, but it seems to cover a broader group: anyone who might have been admitted. So if your ATAR was very low you can get a discount, but if your ATAR was high you can’t? Sorting out who falls within section 36-55 and who does not would be complex, and undermine a simple open enrolment model.

Problem #3 is that HESA does not support the unbundling of charges into separate components. Section 19-100 reads

A higher education provider must not charge a person a fee for a course of study that exceeds the sum of the person’s tuition fees for all of the units of study undertaken with the provider by the person as part of the course.

I think this makes it difficult to offer cheap, stripped down versions of units and then charge more later for examinations or academic credit.

A literal reading of section 19-90 suggests that UNE could have multiple different fees charged at enrolment depending on level of service. But that wasn’t the intention of the legislation – as I recall it, the purpose of this provision was to allow different cohorts of students to be charged different fees for the same bundle of services (for example, students who enrolled in a course at different times could be charged different amounts). And it undermines a key flexibility of the stated UNE model: that students can decide as they go what level of service they want.

I hope my reading of HESA is wrong, or that UNE can drive its open courses through the loopholes. But Australia’s system of higher education funding and regulation was designed to support an homogenised higher education service. It is poorly equipped to deal with innovative higher education business models. That the system is an obstacle to premium higher education services has long been well understood. But with UNE’s proposal, we are starting to see how it is also an obstacle to discount higher education.

More detail here.