Higher education’s distance learning delivery dilemma

Are international students losing their appetite for distance learning (DL) degrees? The current downward trend in United Kingdom and Australian DL degree enrolments does seem counter-intuitive, given the predictions of pundits, who envisage a future where innovations in information technology will offer greater student choice and view the much-hyped massive open online courses (MOOCs) as trailblazers with their 100 million registrations.

It thus seems appropriate to explore what might be happening – are enrolment declines a short-term blip or evidence of a long-term trend?

The UK position

Unlike some other countries, UK enrolments include wholly distance as well as supported distance learning. The figures show total international enrolments to UK DL degrees, including online, are falling and this is at a time when many universities are actively seeking to expand recruitment.

Data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency from 2017-18 indicates that 118,000 international students residing outside the UK were enrolled on UK DL degree programmes. This is a 5% decline over the previous five years.

If it had not been for two universities establishing new and large international delivery partnerships the decline would have been 12%.

Subjects and levels of study are not routinely collected, but earlier studies suggested that more than 50% of UK DL international enrolments were for business- and finance-related courses and approaching 60% followed masters degrees.

UK (domestic) enrolments were more than 250,000 in 2016-17, although there have been recent significant declines. The UK Open University is the largest domestic provider (117,000) but has also seen decreases in enrolment.

Any decline is of great concern, for both financial and educational reasons, particularly as the UK government and many institutions had viewed developing new DL degrees as a way of expanding education exports (into new markets, with new products).

The government, with its drive to cut net migration, had been keen to divert universities away from direct recruitment to their campuses and reduce the bad publicity associated with refusing student visas.

Countries for enrolments

The lead countries for UK DL degree enrolments are: Singapore (10,665 enrolments), Cyprus (5,335), USA (5,325), Hong Kong (5,200), Pakistan (4,720), Sri Lanka (4,605), Malaysia (4,475), Canada (4,080), Nigeria (3,895) and South Africa (3,840) – all of whom have historic ties to Britain.

Although Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Nigeria have experienced recent declines in enrolment, others have expanded. This ranking contrasts with international student recruitment to UK campuses, where China, India, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are in the top 10 student source countries.

In which countries should an institution focus efforts? There are challenges, given the thin spread of demand across many countries, for example, 90 countries each have fewer than 200 UK enrolments. For others, a handful of universities dominate: in Pakistan one UK university accounts for 80% of enrolments, in Luxembourg two universities account for 62% and for Nigeria four universities have 60% of the market.

In-country partnerships are important for UK DL, as a well-chosen local partner might support teaching, marketing, application management and finances. A strong partnership also offers great market advantage: recently in Cyprus enrolments have tripled due to one new UK partnership.

Employing a marketing analogy – DL enrolments can be dependent on the support of a small number of partners, contrasting with direct recruitment to the UK. Choosing an appropriate partner can thus be vital for growth.

International enrolments

Data for international DL enrolments are limited and are not systematically collected, but reviewing these suggests that globally possibly a total of 400,000 students follow English-medium DL degree programmes (the main ‘supply’ countries being the UK, the US, Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and some in Europe).

The US: There are some differences between the US and the UK. Data from the US (National Center for Education Statistics or NCES) shows that in autumn 2016 there were 42,600 enrolments located outside the US, with recent growth having been over 5% per annum.

This international total seems modest by comparison with the UK, given the size of US higher education provision and the large number of domestic DL-delivered degree programmes. For example, of the nearly 20 million students enrolled across the US higher education sector about a third followed some (or all) of their programmes through distance learning, with three million enrolled on fully DL-delivered degrees.

It should be noted that NCES autumn 2017 enrolments indicate a large international enrolment increase, but this could be due to misreporting; clarification is awaited.

Australia: Offshore enrolments totalled 7,390 in 2017, but this was a 5% decline over the previous year. A further 6,850 students were following mixed-mode delivery programmes overseas.


Is there an optimum level of operation for academic and financial appropriateness? The UK pattern is revealing: 80% of DL students were enrolled in just 10% of providers, while one third of institutions enrolled fewer than 100 students each.

The University of London accounts for a third of enrolments, but even discounting these, the distribution remains skewed. While the detailed picture will be more nuanced, this pattern suggests many institutions may be struggling to achieve viable numbers and are probably not covering their costs.

Similar distributions are seen for both Australian and US institutions. The large majority of the 1,100 US institutions reporting each had fewer than 100 internationally based students while seven institutions accounted for 40% of the total enrolments. In Australia only one institution reported over 1,000 enrolments and just five of 56 providers enrolled over 500 students; again, most institutions had fewer than 100 students.

Low enrolments mean low revenues and the pricing of DL programmes appears somewhat haphazard. For example, MBA fees from UK universities vary from £10,000 (US$12,300) to more than £50,000 (US$61,500) – although this is still less than for their US comparators.

For MSc or MS in computing the UK spread is from £8,000 to more than £20,000, but quite amazingly the prestigious Georgia Tech offers its online MS for just £5,500 and the University of Texas fee is £7,900.


There have been more than 100 million registrations to MOOC programmes and while this represents a real success, the rate of increase is slowing and completion rates are a very low 3%.

Nearly 50 MOOC-based degrees are offered globally, but enrolments total a modest 10,000, with just one masters degree programme accounting for 60% of these. Most MOOC students follow just one or two modules, which might be for leisure, for specialist interest and also for the prestige of saying they have ‘studied’ on Harvard or MIT courses.

What are the challenges?

Globally, 400,000 enrolments would seem modest by comparison with internationally mobile students (more than 25 million), but are there opportunities for growth?

Appetite for learning appears inexhaustible and imaginative approaches to meet new student demands will continue to evolve. DL offers another route that will be suitable for some people, some of the time, but not for all. It will likely both sit alongside and be integrated with the traditional campus.

Optimism concerning the benefits of DL remain strong and the original reasons for this seem still to be relevant. These include: greater choice for students; flexible delivery that fits around employment and family commitments; greater opportunities for the disadvantaged and discriminated; higher education access for small states with limited resources; programmes help fill the gap between supply and demand; ‘niche’ topics are on offer; quality-assured international qualifications are provided, with some being professionally accredited; and affordability through economies of scale.

Essentially, education anytime, anyhow, anywhere and for anyone.

That is not denying the challenges, which could be country-specific or global and include cultural bias against non-institution-based programmes; lack of official recognition of (foreign) DL degrees; degree mills undermining reputation; some decrease in interest in international MBAs due to fees which are often higher than for local universities; time lag for an innovation to bear fruit; problems regarding targeting markets; and domestic demand being increasingly met through new in-country institutions.

Future directions

Despite overall decline, a number of UK institutions have increased their international DL students by adopting different and focused approaches, for instance, the University of Edinburgh has a suite of online masters degrees, and the universities of Salford and South Wales have established successful partnerships through Cyprus and Switzerland.

In the short term, UK DL enrolments may, however, experience small declines as universities move to rationalise provision, driven particularly by financial concerns.

US institutions appear well positioned for international growth as they already offer many DL programmes for domestic students and are at the forefront of MOOCs. This positioning offers a stepping stone towards international expansion.

From institutional feedback, it is vital that universities set clear objectives and that these are integrated within an overall international strategy.

Long-term investment is essential (think 10 years); priority markets need to be established; appropriate programmes and delivery means should be built and niche topics grown; professional recognition is necessary as is staff training; and establishing partnerships (leveraging from the brand and operations of both partners) is important. What is more, marketing is fundamental – as is persistence and patience!

Dr Neil Kemp OBE is an international higher education consultant and board member of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. He was previously director of Education UK at the British Council as well as the organisation’s director in a number of countries. He has been a research fellow at the Institute of Education, University College London and is a board member at both the Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex, and the Open University Worldwide. Contact: