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Factsheet: Labor’s Online University Proposal

This is a factsheet issued by the ALP providing details about its proposed online university.

The policy forms part of the ALP’s Knowledge Nation strategy released today by the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley.

ALP policy for an online university.

The University of Australia Online

Labor’s University of Australia Online has two major goals:

  • to increase the number of Australians completing university degrees;
  • to make Australia the world-leader in online education.

We must increase access to university because we know that our economy needs more skilled graduates and that certain groups of Australians still do not participate fully in higher education.

We must stimulate the growth of a world’s best online education industry in Australia because it will be a lucrative export industry. It will also create thousands of highly-skilled and highly-paid jobs for Australians, and help reverse the brain drain which sees too many talented Australians working overseas.

What Will The UAO Do?

To increase access to university degrees, the UAO will:

  • fund 100,000 new undergraduate places a year by 2010;
  • charge students only half the current rate of HECS for these places;
  • offer students greater flexibility through online courses, allowing them to study in their own home, at their own pace and at a suitable time;
  • offer free online university preparation courses to those Australians who have wondered whether they have the ability to succeed at university.

To stimulate the growth of the online education industry, the UAO will:

  • provide funding to overcome the high up-front cost of getting courses online;
  • give seed funding for an online education industry development program to accelerate the development of Australian companies specialising in the conversion of academic content into high-quality online courses.

The UAO will also establish the Institute for Online Teaching to make Australia a world-leader in research into online teaching, learning and course design.

What Makes Up the UAO?

The basic structure of the UAO is shown in the diagram below.


The diagram highlights that the UAO will work with existing universities to offer courses to students and be subject to strict supervision from the UAO’s Quality Assurance Board.


The UAO will have a Quality Assurance Board and rigorous quality assurance procedures to ensure that all the courses meet the required high standards in content, design and delivery.

Online education can be better quality education because of the opportunities it offers for widespread use of the best courses. Australia’s best academics will be able to reach a much wider audience than they can now.

It can also be better education because it allows students to choose a unit that is taught in a way that suits them not force them to accept the only unit available.

By aggregating demand for important but less popular courses online education will also be able to keep these courses alive.

The University of Southern Queensland – which has recently been honoured as the best dual mode university in the world – provides an excellent example of high quality online education.

USQ’s online courses feature:

  • high levels of contact between students and their lecturers;
  • interaction among students via online chat rooms and tutorials;
  • efficient access to course materials through internet links; and
  • access to online experiments with real remote controlled equipment and sensors.

The quality is so good that USQ’s on-campus students have demanded equal access to what they see as the privileges of the online students.

How will Universities Benefit?

Existing universities will benefit in many ways from the UAO.

  • Australian universities will be assisted to assume a world-leading position as providers of online education to students across the globe.
  • They will receive substantial assistance to meet the high up-front costs of putting their courses online.
  • They will be funded for an additional 100,000 undergraduate places – an increase in places of 25%.
  • Academics who contribute to online courses will share in the revenue these courses make when sold to overseas students or students at another Australian university.
  • The Commonwealth will top up university funding to cover the halving of HECS for existing students who choose to do some units online.

How will Students Benefit?

Students will benefit through:

  • better access to university through the 100,000 extra places;
  • lower charges due to the halving of HECS for online places;
  • greater flexibility to study in their own time and at their own pace; and
  • access to free online university preparation courses.

Who Will the UAO’s Students Be?

The UAO is expected to attract:

  • a large number of second chance students who may not have considered university study when they left school;
  • people who cannot afford to study full time due to family financial pressures; and
  • students who do not live in university towns or cities.

For example the UAO will make university study possible for:

  • the family struggling on two low incomes for whom time off for study is an impossible dream;
  • the single parent whose responsibilities to their children mean they cannot attend lectures on campus; and
  • the farming family hundreds of miles from the nearest university.

To encourage new pathways to university study the UAO will also offer free online university preparation courses for people who want to test their ability to complete a degree.

There will also be existing students who choose to do some of their units online because they believe they are better, because the HECS charges are lower or because it is more convenient.

How Will the Online Courses be Created?

The content development program will accelerate the conversion of existing courses to online courses with substantial resources being invested in two complementary ways.

Firstly, we will establish an online education industry development program which will operate in a similar way to a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).

Like a CRC it will encourage partnerships between universities and private sector partners and again like a CRC the intellectual property created will be shared.

As well as accelerating the production of high quality online content, it will aim to accelerate the development of several Australian companies with cutting edge experience in producing online education content.

Secondly, the UAO will provide funding to commission the production of high priority units and courses through the online education CRC.

These online courses will then be certified by the UAO’s quality assurance processes and made available to students through the UAO or existing universities.

To gain access to the new Commonwealth funding universities must agree to allow the UAO to offer the units they participate in developing to other eligible students – with royalties flowing back to the creators.

This will ensure the UAO will offer students a wide range of high quality Australian online courses.

This approach will encourage both collaboration and competition between universities to develop high quality units and courses and will ensure that there is always pressure to keep the online units up to date in both content and design.

What Assumptions Have Been Made About The Cost Of Online Courses?

The additional online places will be funded at a level below the current average funding for an undergraduate place of around $11,500 but substantially above the ridiculous 25% which is Dr Kemp’s current level of funding for additional places.

There are both domestic and international examples of online courses being offered to students at a price below the current fully funded level.

We know there will be high up-front costs and that is why substantial separate funding will be made available for content development.

We also know that provision of services online (but not necessarily the creation of content) has proven to be dramatically cheaper in many areas.

And we know that as the number of online students increases, the average cost will fall.

It will be a substantial task, involving negotiation with the universities, to set the initial funding rates and an appropriate system for adjusting those rates as costs fall.

What About Post-Graduate Courses?

The focus of this initiative is on undergraduate and not postgraduate courses.

The UAO policy will not undermine the revenue universities currently receive from postgraduate courses.

The UAO may seek to improve access in areas of national priority where the current provision of postgraduate courses is insufficient to meet Australia’s needs.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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