The demand for on-line mode of learning is growing worldwide. A recent report by Coursera suggests the growth of on-line markets in the USA, India, China, Mexico, Brazil and China. Apart from the growth of the on-line market, universities are also establishing partnerships with edtech companies. Analysis done by Mosley suggests 90 UK universities (almost 50 per cent)  have partnerships with on-line education companies. According to HolonIQ, there has been a 43.7 per cent growth in partnerships between universities and edtech companies.

In Australia, the offering of on-line degrees is not new. Australian on-line third-party arrangement commenced in 2003 through Open Universities Australia (OUA). In recent times, there has been significant growth in partnerships between universities and edtech companies to offer on-line courses under a third-party arrangement. The growth of this phenomenon coincides with the scale-up of on-line courses offered by universities. Sadly, policymakers and those who regulate, and monitor quality, do not have a national database on the size and scale of on-line third-party arrangements by Australian higher education institutions.

As of April 2022, 33 of the 42 Australian universities offered more than 850 on-line courses via partnership arrangements with third-party providers (aka on-line programme management organisations, OPM). There are 14 on-line third-party providers that have partnered with Australian universities to offer fully on-line courses, including FutureLearn, edx, upGrad, coursera, 2U, Online Education Services  Open Education Services, Keypath, On-line Study Australia, Ducere, Didasko, and ITMasters.

Partnerships with OPMs have enabled universities to expand into on-line markets efficiently and with economies of scale. While the models of partnerships could be diverse, many OPMs re-design learning resources and assessments based on the curriculum provided by their partner universities to suit on-line pedagogy. It is also common practice for OPMs to engage teaching and support staff to deliver these degrees on-line.

It is expected that the partnership between universities and edtech companies which started with domestic market will expand to international markets. Countries such as India have opened opportunities for universities to offer on-line degrees in partnership with reputable institutions. There are significant developments in university partnerships with edtech companies in relation to non-award short courses. Non-university providers may also be moving into the OPM; however, with the absence of a national database it is difficult to ascertain the number of partnerships.

While demand for on-line degrees has presented new opportunities for institutions and learners, the recent growth in such third-party arrangements could present an increase in institutional and quality risk.

Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) currently regulates accredited higher education institutions. OPMs offering courses through third-party arrangements are not subject to accreditation and quality audits by TEQSA. Accredited institutions are accountable for quality assurance and maintenance of standards. In recent years, the higher education sector has witnessed the termination of third-party partnerships offering on-campus course delivery to international students. In one case, re-registration was shortened, and conditions were imposed due to issues relating to governance and quality assurance of third-party arrangements.

As higher education providers position themselves towards growth with OPMs, institutions must assess risks and develop strong governance and quality assurance framework for on-line third-party course delivery. A sector-wise approach towards data transparency and quality information will be critical for Australia to protect students’ interest and to compete in increasingly borderless education.

Professor Mahsood Shah, Dean Swinburne Sydney

Associate Professor Fion Lim, Director, UTS Learning Centre


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