Universal Access to Education: The need for new paradigms

29 June 2012
World Education Congress, India 2012
29 June 2012; 11.15am-11.45am (including Q&A)
Taj Lands End, Bandra, Mumbai - Room: Ballroom

Universal Access to Education: The need for new paradigms

Professor Jan Thomas, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Southern Queensland

Conference Themes:
Learning in the 21st Century: Right and access to education
New paradigms and models for education
Conference Sub-Themes:
Localised learning in a globalised context
Education and disadvantaged groups
The role of technology in supporting off-campus education

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I will be aiming to speak for approximately 20 minutes this morning and allow 10 minutes for questions and discussion. 

My discussion today concerns the need for new paradigms in education to position us to cope with the challenges confronting us in pursuing universal education. My discussion principally concerns a consideration of higher education but will touch on principles of general education as well.

In September 2000, all 189 member states of the United Nations signed on to the Millennium Development Goals. These are a set of eight goals, each with set targets for 2015 and indicators against which performance can be measured.

At the time of the signing there was a lot of cynicism around these goals; and the challenges involved are clearly immense. However, I see the MDGs as a magnificent symbol of hope, as acknowledgement that all nations of the world – despite our differences in cultures, histories, politics, and social and economic circumstances – share a set of common aspirations to make the world a better place for all of humanity. 

Progress in achieving the 2015 targets has been mixed. The UN reports that progress on poverty reduction is still being made despite the impact of the Global Financial Crisis and the current financial woes in Europe, there has been remarkable progress in reducing mortality due to diseases such as HIV and malaria, and major advances have been made in getting children into school, including in many of the poorest countries. However, there have also been major set-backs. The number of people who are undernourished has continued to grow, the most severe impact of climate change is being felt by vulnerable populations who have contributed least to the problem, and progress has been frustratingly slow in gender equality and the empowerment of women, including in the area of education. 

However, while the tasks remain immense, it is our common aspirations that continue to bind us, particularly as we come to increasingly appreciate the degree to which all nations of the world are interconnected. 

It is common now to speak of the world as a global village. An economic crisis in Greece or Spain affects markets all across the globe; the high levels of green-house gas emissions of industrialised nations or the de-forestation in isolated rainforests affects global warming that impacts on us all; a conflict in one area of the world has implications not only for peace in that region but for global security. We cannot avoid the fact that we are all now interconnected in so many ways that we inevitably share interests, share problems and share the consequences of what we all do.

In this context, education plays a vital role. If you look at the MDGs and think about which goals are at their heart as preconditions for overcoming problems such as poverty, hunger and disease, it would have to be goals 2 and 3 relating to improving education. Improving educational participation and attainment is at the core of our achieving our common aspirations as nations and as individuals.

Let us consider another mammoth UN initiative that was enshrined over 50 years prior to the signing of the MDGs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Its preamble asserts that the:
… recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration, reads, in part:
• (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

As with the educational aspirations expressed in the MDGs, Article 26 describes a human right that has and continues to pose severe challenges, and all nations are grappling with their own particular issues of how to bring these aspirations about. However, significantly, it is a global challenge that most nations are particularly anxious to meet, as the need to improve educational attainment and the quality of outcomes is one area where both human rights activitists and hard-nosed economists agree. This is because fully harnessing a nation’s social capital through universal education is a vital element of a nation’s economic development and global competitiveness. This fact alone has seen the massive development in education worldwide since the middle of the 20th century – and the importance of education to a nation’s future is increasing even more as we move further into the 21st century.

An early as 1998, an influential US Department of Commerce Report stated the following:
In the workplace of the 21st century workers will need to be better educated to fill new jobs and more flexible to respond to the changing knowledge and skill requirements of existing jobs. Meeting the challenge of employment and training will call for best efforts of stakeholders and new forms of cooperation and collaboration. With this responsibility comes enormous opportunity. Not only does a better educated and trained work force create significant productivity gains and better bottom line results for employers, but the more a worker learns, the more a worker earns. Society is responding, and education and training are increasing. 

But, of course, as we’ve already noted, education is not only the key to economic and business prosperity. Education is also a major factor promoting social and political stability; to finding solutions to the major challenges to local and regional communities arising from environmental changes and consideration of food and water security; and to effectively managing the impact of change on our societies that are occurring through such factors as scientific and technological advances.

When considering higher education alone, the implications of increasing participation and attainment levels are staggering. Projections indicate a doubling of higher education student numbers in the next 10 to 20 years. 

I note that the implications for India appear particularly daunting with one article stating that: “India alone would need nearly 2,400 additional universities in the next 25 years - or roughly two new universities per week” to meet its demand for graduates. Even if this estimate were a wild exaggeration, it still allows a lot of room for a desired outcome that will be impossible to achieve through traditional thinking. 

We require new paradigms for educational delivery that will allow us to cope with the astronomical growth required in participation and attainment to achieve both our social justice and economic sustainability aspirations.

And, of course, as heady as these sorts of growth predictions are for higher education, the challenges become even greater when we consider what developments are required in global education systems as a whole to support and underpin these sorts of increases in higher education participation. 

We recall that the MDG calls for universal primary education, and indeed, the importance of high educational achievement at all levels cannot be underestimated. When considering education in the 21st century, there is a quote attributed to Alvin Toffler that I disagree with with a passion.

The quote is this:
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn.
While I have no arguments with the importance of lifelong learning in the context of 21st century education, I do argue with the implication that literacy and numeracy will in some way become unimportant. An important insight for me emerged at a Forum conducted last year by the Australian Academy of Social Sciences which was held to consider the critical issues facing Australia to 2025. 

In considering educational needs to support innovation – which is the sort of discussion that often tends to concentrate on needs in terms of graduate skills - the Forum reached the following conclusion:
Ongoing and incremental organisational innovation will require a broad base of skills – including good language literacy and numeracy skills among the largest possible percentage of the working age population. Innovation also requires many technical skills that do not require a university education, such as certificate level and vocational training. Even within R&D, PhD graduates account for less than 15% of total employment, so the safest approach is to strengthen education in all science and engineering disciplines at all levels, while business management organisational skills are also essential. 

This is a stunning conclusion in terms of appreciating the need for holistic approaches to building education systems rather than concentrating efforts on particular sectors or interests. 

However, having made this key contextual point, for the remainder of this address I would like to concentrate on one specific, albeit massive, problem that we all face – and that concerns how we build our capacity to meet the growing demand for graduates. It is simply not economically viable to rely totally on building more bricks and mortar universities as the growth in capacity required is just too great over a reasonably short period. To quote from a colleague of mine, Professor Jim Taylor:
To overcome such monumental problems, there is a clear need for innovation – for thinking outside the box – indeed, for thinking a long way outside the box.

Online education has emerged as a force in higher education over the past two decades, building on earlier models of distance education that achieved a high level of sophistication through particular providers – my own institution, the University of Southern Queensland, being one that has built a strong reputation in this area over the past 35 years. 

Online education provides an important avenue for reducing our dependence on bricks and mortar universities. Online education, in particular, is being seen as a means of addressing the growing trend for adult learners to return to university throughout life to upgrade or change their qualifications as their career or life goals change. A recent excellent report by UK’s JISC Innovation Group of the University of Bristol entitled Learning in a Digital Age noted the following:
Universities and colleges are already contributing to lifelong learning through their existing learning and teaching, research and partnership activities. But the fast-changing economic climate and diminishing numbers of younger entrants are making it more likely that the demographic profile of higher education programmes is set to change, with the needs of adult learners perhaps taking a more prominent role than they have done in the past.

The report notes that learners entering higher education later in life have different needs to traditional school leaver entrants – requiring more flexibility in terms of where and when they study. So online education provides particular benefits for these students by allowing flexibility in the place pace and place of study. However, technology is increasingly being used in universities to enhance the learning experience for all forms of learners. 

This is an inevitable consequence of the degree to which: “Digital technologies permeate every aspect of our lives” and the fact that: “Increasingly, individuals bring to higher education rich experiences gained from a technologically enhanced world.” 

Clearly, online education models need to develop in such a way as to assure appropriate levels of quality are maintained and be based on costing and delivery models that ensure they are accessible to a broad range of the population. As to the latter point, grounds for concern have recently emerged as to the affordability of online education in the short-to-medium term in my own country. Australia is a sparsely populated continent with a huge land mass. Our Federal government has chosen to fully fund a national broad band network as a means of ensuring near universal access to fast broadband as a vital piece of national infrastructure. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. However, in an effort to recoup the cost of the network it is predicted that internet access prices will triple under the new broadband network. I recently published an article in Australia pointing out that this will force many students off-line and so negate many of the educational benefits to a significant proportion of the student population in the short to medium term. My suggestion was for the retention of the copper network that the NBN is replacing until NBN prices come down to allow students alternative access or the introduction of a government subsidy to assist students affected. 

This example highlights the need for national policy frameworks to work together to support goals in educational attainment – and the degree to which policies in one area of government can undermine developments in another if this level of coordination is not ensured.

But do our existing online models go far enough to assist us in meeting our demand for future graduates, particularly in countries facing the greatest challenges. As an example of where the search for solutions may take us, I return again to my colleague, Professor Jim Taylor. Jim has looked to The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement for models that meet the requirement of needing to think a long way outside the box to find solutions to the challenges we face.

The OER movement embraces a philosophy of sharing knowledge that is freely available.

Open Education Resources includes full courses, course materials, learning objects, text books, videos, tests, research papers, software and any other materials, tools or techniques used to support access to knowledge that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others. The central tenet of the OER movement is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology, especially the Internet, provides an unparalleled opportunity to increase access to knowledge and to share it, use it and reuse it.

Based on OER models, Jim has developed a comprehensive model to make a sustainable and significant contribution towards meeting the exponential demand for higher education. 

His Open Courseware Futures model seeks to provide a framework in which open educational resources can be harnessed for the benefits of students at low cost. OCW learners have access to academic support through qualified volunteer tutors as well as through and intelligent tutoring databases, have the opportunity to be assessed on demand and to have the potential to gain credit towards recognized qualifications awarded by a credible accreditation agency. The business for this initiative is based on having free access to OCW and free access to open academic support through a managed volunteer tutor network, but pay only the assessment process, at an inevitably much reduced fee. 

Jim envisages an OpenCourseWare Accreditation Agency to collate and coordinate the credit gained by OCW students from participating OCWC institutions (which are already accredited in their own countries), which would provide assessment on demand for a reduced fee, and would grant credit to successful OCW students in a limited number of selected courses. The proposed OpenCourseWare Accreditation Agency would grant an appropriately named OCW Degree with credit accumulated through any number of participating OCWC institutions. 

Through this provision of cost-effective academic support, provided by academic volunteers supported by the academic content repository with intelligent access to reusable learning objects, it is expected that many OCW learners will have the opportunity to achieve a level of expertise worthy of assessment and, where successful, of ultimately being granted accreditation from a recognized agency as illustrated in OpenCourseWare Futures.

Jim notes that:
The OCW futures scenario ... provides a potentially pragmatic manifestation of a global meta-university - it is not purely theoretical speculation, it is entirely viable. With the effective collaboration of committed partners the OCW degree option could be fully operational within a few years.
So, what is needed to make this sort of vision come to life? Certainly there is a requirement for considerable investment, research and development to make such a vision a reality. There is also a need for open-mindedness among educational authorities and employers in assessing the quality of the learning and the qualifications acquired on their own merits. And there needs to be a significant degree of philanthropy and collaboration both within and across nations to make these sorts of opportunities available.

How possible is this in a world that is increasingly becoming obsessed by the business bottom line? I return again to the common interests that inspired all nations’ to commit to the universal declaration of human rights and the millennium development goals; and to the appreciation that we are all inter-connected in these shared interests. Cross-border collaboration; seeing your interests as my interests, seeing your problems as my problems – this provides us all with a way forward.

May I conclude by saying that as champions of education and educational development we the delegates of the 2012 World Education Congress must be active in impressing on our governments the importance of progressing the millennium development goals. 

We need to promote international collaboration and to encourage our political leaders to rise above parochial interests in the pursuit of global wellbeing. Of course, the expense and effort are immense and the barriers are great but the aims could not be more worthwhile. The Harvard academic Michael Sandel has highlighted the need for a distinction to be made between a market-driven economy and a market-driven society.

A market-driven economy is a valuable tool to achieve competitiveness, productivity and low prices as a basis for national prosperity. However, he argues that we cannot allow the market-driven philosophy to infiltrate how we operate, build and develop our society. He notes that:
Growing inequality is a problem from the standpoint of fairness ... But it also does damage to the sense in which democratic citizens share a common life. 

He argues further for considerations of us supporting:
... the moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy.
THANK YOU. I’m happy to take questions





4 Stuart, L. (1999). 21st Century Skills for 21st Century Jobs. A Report of the US Department of Commerce, US Department of Education, US Department of Labor, National Institute for Literacy and Small Business Administration, Washington, DC. Abstract.

5 Klemencic, M., and Fried, J. (2007). “Demographic Challenges and the Future of Higher Education”, International Higher Education (No 47), Spring 2007, ISSN: 1084-0613. Retrieved on 15 October 2007 from

6 Usher, A.(2007). Educational Policy Institute. Retrieved on 15 October 2007 from

7 Daniel, J., Kanwar, A., and Uvalić-Trumbić, S (2007) – “Mass Tertiary Education in the Developing World: Distant Prospect or Distinct Possibility?”. Retrieved on 15 October 2007 from 

8 Cited in Education in the 21st century: What does it look like and how might schools change:

9 Keating, M. & Smith, C. (2011). Critical Issues Facing Australia to 2025: Summary of a scenario development forum, Academy Proceedings 1/2011, The Academic of the Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra:, p. 18.

10 Taylor, J.C. nd: ‘Open Courseware Futures: Creating a Parallel Universe’:

11 See also:

12 Drysdale, R. (2012). Learning in a Digital Age, JISC Innovation Group, University of Bristol

13 Drysdale (2012). Op. cit., p. 5.

14 Thomas, J. (2012). ‘Without subsidy, costly NBN is a firewall to students’, The Australian¸13 June 2012, p. 5.

15 Taylor, J.C. nd. ‘Open Courseware Futures: Creating a Parallel Universe’:


17 QUOTE CONTINUES AS: The composition of the enabling partnership group would build on the existing network of organizations involved in the establishment and operation of the OCW Consortium and would need to entail:
• a sufficient number of OCWC member institutions willing to establish open academic support through the establishment of a local academic volunteer initiative, and a willingness to embrace assessment on demand at a reduced fee for selected courses with the subsequent granting of credit to successful OCW students;
• a small number of OCWC member institutions willing to commit research and development staff to collaborate with staff of the LFII Software Development Laboratory;
• the support of global organizations such as UNESCO; and
• the support of philanthropic organizations such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which have already contributed significant funding to establish the OCWC.

18 Sandel, M.J. (1998), ‘What Markets Can’t Buy: The moral limits of markets’: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Brasenose College, Oxford, 11 and 12 May, 1998:

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