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OER24 Guest Post: “R” is for Resources but it is far from enough

By Brian Mulligan and Gemini Advanced

The escalating cost of higher education poses a significant financial burden for students and society. With a focus on textbooks, Open Educational Resources (OER) have emerged as a potential answer. However, while OER offers promise, materials alone comprise a small fraction of the total price of a degree. Even if tuition fees were greatly reduced, living expenses remain a hurdle. Additionally, although in some countries both fees and living costs are subsidised by governments, this may not continue to the same extent in the future and even now is unaffordable for mass higher education in low and middle-income countries. A broader transformation is necessary to achieve substantial cost reduction.

Understanding the True Cost Drivers

Learning materials contribute minimally to the overall expense of higher education. Consider this breakdown:

  • Fees: Tuition, administrative and other fees..
  • Living Expenses: Accommodation, food, and other necessities represent major expenditures.
  • Travel: For many students, transportation remains a recurring cost.
  • Opportunity Costs: Foregone earnings during years of study constitute a substantial, often underestimated expense.

In many systems, these costs are somewhat mitigated by government subsidies for tuition or living expenses. However, such funding models may not be sustainable long-term and are often nonexistent in low- and middle-income countries. For global scale affordability, we need an educational model less dependent on traditional subsidy patterns.

Limitations of OER

OER undoubtedly holds value. High-quality materials should be more widely adopted. Yet, a content-centric approach fails to address certain crucial components of the educational experience:

  • Structured Learning: Curated OER must be integrated into designed pathways to create cohesive programmes.
  • Student Support: Guidance, interaction, and assistance are often vital for mastering concepts.
  • Robust Assessment: Formative and summative assessments demonstrate knowledge and are central to most credentials.
  • Accreditation: To gain widespread acceptance, degrees require recognition by respected accrediting bodies.

Systemic Innovation for Affordability

To attain meaningful cost savings, higher education systems require rethinking. Potential strategies include:

  • Online and Hybrid Models: Reducing reliance on in-person instruction addresses a major cost center.
  • Work-Integrated Learning: Apprenticeships and similar models link education to income streams, mitigating opportunity costs.
  • Technology-Enabled Support: Peer networks and emerging AI-powered tools can assist learners and scale assessment without proportional growth in faculty staffing.
  • Accreditation: Existing universities must lend credibility by providing accreditation oversight for innovative, OER-driven programmes.

The Challenge of Change

Reimagining higher education to promote affordability is admittedly complex. We must prove that innovation and quality standards can coexist.  That will require us to address the quality assurance requirements that slow or even stifle such innovation.  We need more agile quality systems that allow us to move faster and generate evidence of efficacy as we progress.  This requires an outputs-based approach to quality, measuring genuine impact, as opposed to a deterministic inputs-based approach that requires specific activities and services.  Perhaps then, we can truly open higher education to all.

About the Authors

Brian Mulligan is an educational technology consultant at with 38 years experience in higher education, most recently in synchronous online education, low-cost content creation and the strategic application of learning technologies.

Brian was assisted in this blog by Gemini Advanced

Registration is still open for the 15th annual conference for Open Education research, practice and policy will be organised by ALT, in partnership with Munster Technological University (MTU).

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