Fundamental shifts vs. Cost cutting

Grounding SA’s soaring education

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As the extreme cost of higher education once again made headlines around the country, a leading higher education provider says it is possible for institutions to make changes that will spare the pockets of students and parents without compromising on quality.

Following the success of Rosebank College, a division of The Independent Institute of Education, in addressing affordability issues, its leadership say a concerted effort to reduce the costs that drive fee increases had made a difference. But simple cost cutting was not the answer, they warned.

“Education costs are soaring – in fact the education price index continues to run ahead of ordinary inflation,” says Megan du Plessis, Degree Manager at Rosebank College.

“This is at least partially due to the input costs in education being based on the scarcest of skills – appropriately qualified lecturers and teachers. Additionally, high quality institutions will want to ensure that students receive the level of support they need to address some of the gaps between one level of education and the next – an intervention that also comes at a price.”

Du Plessis says that, taken together with the exchange rate that drives costs of textbooks, these and other factors have made education increasingly unaffordable.

Recognising this harsh economic reality, which means education is often a luxury instead of a an accessible right, the college decided last year to interrogate the entire traditional model through the two lenses of affordability in the hands of students and the quality of the outcomes. Du Plessis says it was argued that the college could achieve both - if fundamental shifts were made rather than just embarking on a cost-cutting drive.

“The exciting result has been an improved teaching and learning model which is more cost effective for students and has in fact enabled the reduction of the fees for most of the courses offered.”

Du Plessis says that a key intervention was to better leverage technology and make use of carefully scaffolded (building one set of knowledge on top of another) and iterative (keep tackling something until you get it right) learning.

“By these two interventions, the actual amount of classroom contact time has been reviewed with no negative impact on student output.  In other words, the approach has been to focus on student learning as measured by their success, rather than a technocratic assessment of the ‘expected’ number of teaching hours,” she says.

However achieving this reduction in contact hours without damaging the quality of student learning required, increased attention to lecturer development, as well as learning material development and presentation – both of which were investments that have quickly returned value. 

“Traditionally, contact time for so-called under-prepared students had been higher than for those who have come from stronger schooling backgrounds. The reality is that it is not the amount of contact time alone that determines success, but rather what is done with that time.

“This is where the opportunity to revisit what we do on each campus has been grabbed enthusiastically.”

In addition, a different approach to timetabling, that has enabled fuller use of existing resources, enabled the campuses not to delay additional investments which would drive up costs.

“Here the quality issues that have been successfully managed have been associated with ensuring that there is no resultant congestion or overcrowding,” explains Du Plessis. 

“Staggered breaks for students improved the efficiency of utilisation of space, but also of other key resources such as the library. In this regard, textbook costs are also being managed better through increased use of reading packs and e-books, although it is disappointing to see that often the cost from the publisher for the latter is not lower than the printed copy. 

“In these cases our academic team have used the opportunity to consider other publishers and suppliers and have accessed a range of new, more cost effective materials.”

Greg Filmore, Managing Director of Rosebank College, says that what has been most interesting in the process of trying to manage costs to stem fee increases, is that it has in fact allowed the college to drop fees in almost all of their programmes. 

“Equally importantly though, has been the fact that the process has triggered very valuable quality, and teaching and learning conversations that resulted in better in- and out-of-classroom practices.  Put differently – what we have found is that by interrogating what we do through the dual lenses of cost impact to students and impact on quality, we have found several sustainable ways to better manage both.”

Issued by:                              LANGE 360

On behalf of:                        THE INDEPENDENT INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION

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