Openness, Accessibility in Higher Education

Irene Kapetanaki
11 min readDec 1, 2023

“Openness in education refers to the idea that education should be accessible and available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or other factors” (Kocdar et al. 2023).

Whilst thinking about this topic I found myself like my peers and colleagues Kirsty, Marc and Sarah wondering on the definition and breadth of openness. When I started searching for a definition on openness to understand the concept better I realised the concept is wide and can be subject to different interpretations. Therefore, I have concluded that openness in higher education is personal; it can be viewed and interpreted depending on how it relates to the individual, their values and their ideas. For me openness in higher education means education that can be accessed by all, from anywhere, at any time and at no cost for everyone to learn and develop from. My definition may resonate with a few but it does contradict the current practices in the highly marketized UK higher education sector where international students are viewed as “cash cows” or a means for profit.

When I was teaching my first group of university students (a very long time ago), I would print pages upon pages of materials and resources to share with them to enhance their learning and understanding of the topics we would discuss during lectures and tutorials. I was teaching a small group of students nevertheless it allowed them to learn and access materials which otherwise they would have not done so due to the cost. I made my educational resources accessible to my students. However, long are the days of printed articles and endless photocopying of book chapters from the dark corners of the library. Now, many UK university students have access to millions of materials though their university library online. That said, many books and articles are still behind paywalls and only accessible to those with the right institutional subscriptions but not all; as a result, open access to research, educational resources and practices has been expanding considerably in the last few years. Alongside, the way higher education is delivered in many parts of the world, has also changed with a significant move towards online and distance learning education. With the development of openness in education, students nowadays can access learning from all four corners of the world.

The technological advances and widening openness in education makes it possible to bring learning and education to students who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to access it. However, despite education being a basic human right to everyone in the world, many learners still experience barriers when trying to access it. For example, higher education in the UK has been heavily marketized and in the face of competitiveness in the market it has become unaffordable and hence inaccessible to many. Note that I will use the terms open and accessible in this blog interchangeably.

Should Higher Education be Open to all?

Education has been recognised as a basic human right and one of the most sustainable investments. When the Open University started operating its premise was to bring education to all, with the founding principle of open to people, places, methods and ideas. It laid with the idea of democratising education. This was during a time when higher education in the UK was free to all students and accessible by everyone who wanted to pursue an education beyond secondary school. Since then, there have been considerable shifts in policy and practices, such as variable fees being introduced in the 1980’s for international students and a consistent increase in the cost of higher education for all students in the last two decades. Thus, taking away the concept of open to all and consequently accessible. Resulting in higher education and the information provided therein to be a privilege to those who can afford it, as argued by my colleague Kirsty in her blog post.

Peter and Deimann (2013) frame this well by asking “What about the fundamental claim that knowledge should be considered a common good and be accessible as openly as possible?” Openness in education is not a new concept, it refers to the idea that education should be accessible to everyone regardless of their background or status. Therefore, it seems that what I am advocating for is in essence free education that can be accessed by everyone at any time in any part of the world. After reading and researching about the higher education models of other countries I was left wondering why the UK is not following a similar model of equality and equity.

Openness and Higher Ed. by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Students in many European countries like Germany, Greece, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, to name a few, do not have to pay to go to university. Higher education in these countries is free or has a nominal fee each year and is heavily subsidised by the government. The main catch is you must be an EU citizen or EEA resident. In Greece, for example, students get free textbooks, free meals on campus, free or reduced entry to cultural institutions and half price on all public transportation. The aim is to make education accessible to anyone irrespective of their financial background. Entry to university is based on merit and excellence emphasising the philosophy that education is for all as embodied in the county’s constitution.

Nevertheless, being free doesn’t mean they are necessarily open but I feel it is a step in the right direction to providing opportunities for students to access higher education. UK higher education institutions still have a way to go to remove the barriers faced by many learners in accessing education. I deal with applicants from developing countries also referred to as the Global South regularly that cannot afford their education and cannot access the education my institution provides. This is a phenomenon that can be observed across the sector in the UK. Some universities, like the University of Nottingham, have even introduced regional scholarships to enable applicants from developing countries and the wider Global South to access quality education. The country you come from and the confines of its borders can act as a barrier to openness in higher education.

Many universities in the Global North, including the UK, are run like a business where financial considerations outweigh access to education. Tuition fees are on the rise year on year and students from the Global South are excluded and outpriced by a select population of students who can afford the increasing tuition fees. We read in the news of students in the UK worrying about how they can’t afford going to university with the rise in the cost of living.

Openness in online and distance learning education

Online distance learning is considered a mainstream teaching method of students in many countries across the world. The objective of online and distance learning education is to provide students with the opportunity to study regardless of where they were based, their socio-economic status or other obstacles (Jeong, 2018). Online and distance learning offers students options and opportunities. This is in place where conventional higher education is unable to meet the demand of the population in terms of their needs by reaching out to the unreached. They are able to access open educational resources (OER), open educational practices (OEP) and MOOCs which they can use to develop their learning and understanding of a wide range of concepts. Despite this, learners can face different types of barriers and obstacles when accessing open educational opportunities, resources and knowledge.

To facilitate the provision of online and distance learning education there has been a growing movement in the development and availability of open educational resources, open educational practices and openness in knowledge where it is becoming more common and widespread. The idea of open educational resources is to provide everyone with access to materials to learn, grow and develop. Technological developments have allowed for the sharing of ODR allowing users to reuse, redistribute, revise and remix them. As argued by Wiley it has been necessary to ensure transparency, collaboration and innovation in education. ODR afford great benefits to educators and learners alike. It is seen as beneficial to learners and students by widening access and being more inclusive. Learners can access online and distance learning education more openly from anywhere, at anytime and working through them at any pace. Therefore, proving open online and distance learning education without barriers is beneficial to not just learners but also educators.

Photo by Matthew Garoffolo on Unsplash

What are the barriers?

Cost

There is a cost to develop, maintain and distribute open educational resources and open teaching that sometimes are passed onto the learner. Some MOOCs require registration, hence a collection of personal data, whilst others may require a small fee for a certificate of completion. An interesting concept is that of openwashing where something is marketed as open when in reality there are financial and proprietary interests. Consequently, the success of MOOC’s intrigued the interests of companies smelling an opportunity to make money. MOOCs evolved for some as “open” products sometimes used as a gateway to sell higher value products such as more substantive educational courses or qualifications. An altruistic idea of sharing resources and opening education has turned into considerations of how to monetise openness.

The marketisation of the higher education sector set a requirement for tuition fees for online and distance learning education. The reasoning was to cover operational costs, teaching costs, etc. However, the high fees charged are difficult to explain when speaking about operational and teaching costs without thinking there are incentives for profit. For example, some online and distance learning programmes costs upwards of £40,000 with the average cost sitting at around £12,000 for home students and £19,000 for international students. Therefore, it is not surprising EU survey research found UK institutions put significantly less emphasis on providing tuition fee free access to educational opportunities.

Entry Requirements

The concept of open, accessible and distance learning is not new. One of the most important characteristics of it is the removal of barriers to learning, hence providing enhanced access to the non-traditional learner. Some institutions have flexible entry requirements where an applicant’s work experience can be considered in lieu of academic qualifications. Nevertheless, the majority of UK higher education institutions require formal qualifications to gain entry and access a large number of online and distance learning education opportunities without offering an alternative entry route such as that of professional experience. Survey research found UK institutions put less emphasis on the importance of providing educational opportunities without entry requirements in comparison to their counterparts (Germany, Spain, Poland and France). Consequently, several students from developing countries are not able to access these programmes not because they do not possess the relevant knowledge and experience but rather because they do not possess the formal qualifications required or their qualifications are not sufficient.

Quality

The quality of open educational resources and open online distance learning education has been known to be questioned by learners and educators alike. Whilst there are several quality assurance models that have emerged from research the common learner assumes that open and hence free might equate to poor quality. Quality is a subjective concept where it can depend on the perception of the learner or educator. Therefore, it is about challenging these perceptions of poor quality to improve the attractiveness of open educational resources and open education. Quality is often referred by the peer review process and is dependant on the educational institution and the educator creating the content. The reputation of the institution and or educator may impact the perceived perception of quality.

When considering MOOC’s quality, survey research on how higher education institutions are dealing with openness several universities indicated they do not have a mechanism for recognising MOOC certification using qualification frameworks or recognition instruments. Consequently, there is no consistent approach of certifying the quality of OER and MOOCs where each creator and provider may use different quality assurance frameworks. This means that learners are not able to access open knowledge that can be assured by a quality assurance framework.

Technical — Digital Exclusion and Lack of Connectivity

Internet access across the world has been steadily increasing in the last decade with almost 66% of the worldwide population having access to the internet. On the other hand, developing countries were at 56% and least developed countries at 36%. Learners have often identified one of their main barriers to accessing online learning materials and resources is the lack of a stable internet connection that allows them access to the resources. Moreover, many learners may have limited access to the technology required to access open online distance learning education. They do not possess or have access to the necessary technical equipment required for online and distance learning education. Another technical barrier is that of stable electricity, which has been found to be a barrier for online learning as it is inaccessible in many developing countries.

How can we make it better?

There are steps that can be taken to achieve a better balance of openness, accessibility, equality and equity in education by removing barriers and improving opportunities. Any steps that are be taken should ensure that it allows for open access, open to everyone, open to different ideas and perspectives and of the quality expected. We can make it better by:

· Providing inclusive open access and equal access without barriers to educational opportunities and learning by the removal of barriers such as entry qualifications and financial ability to pay.

· Facilitating the ability to study, learn and develop at anytime, anywhere, anyhow and at any pace.

· Promoting open scholarship where materials and resources are under an open license with permissions to reuse, redistribute, revise and remix.

Conclusion

Access to open education and to open online and distance learning education should be open to all irrespective of where they live or their socioeconomic background. However, it can be argued that some education providers and institutions put barriers up for learners to access open education with the use of entry requirements and tuition fees. Therefore, online and distance learning education does not always mean open. The lack of accessibility, extortionate tuition fees and the perpetuation of inequality and lack of equity faced by many students all over the world is notable. Perhaps I am being pessimistic and don’t see the true meaning of openness being implemented by higher education institutions in the UK but it hard to see that when you consider all the barriers that have been put up. I am a true believer of free education for all. I believe that education is a basic human right that should be afforded to all rather than those who can access it easily. Education is not accessible or not open because of tuition fees. An alternative model to this was online education a type originally conceived by the Open University in the UK. However, as previously outlined even online education is becoming less open, accessible and attainable; running the risk of simply becoming a closed and privileged form of education like its on campus variants with the added ‘disadvantage’ of lack of quality assurance for the most open models, e.g. MOOCs.

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Irene Kapetanaki

Professional support staff at The University of Manchester. I have a keen interest in equity and equality in access to higher education.