Reality Check: Online education is expensive when you do it right

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It is not cheap to provide a high quality university education online. At first glance, the operating expense per student appears lower at the Télé-Université du Québec (TÉLUQ) and Athabasca University than at traditional universities. Accounting for enrolment profile, the same is true for Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in BC, which has a physical campus and hosts BC’s Online Learning Agency.
Drilling deeper, online education is less of a bargain. The weighted average cost per student at TÉLUQ and Athabasca is 11 per cent higher than the on-campus per-student cost in Ontario. It is only by adding TRU without adjusting for enrolment mix that the weighted average falls to 10 per cent lower than Ontario.*
The cost savings are achieved partly by savings on full-time faculty salaries. The combined student-faculty ratio for the three online institutions is 34, well above the combined average of 21 for their counterparts in BC, Quebec, and Alberta. Take faculty salaries and student scholarships out of the mix and the combined operating costs at TÉLUQ and Athabasca are 30 per cent higher than in Ontario. Even with TRU included, Ontario institutions still spend less.
Ontario already has the lowest operating cost per student and the worst student-faculty ratio, which rose to 28 in 2010. If online learning in Ontario is meant to achieve cost savings parallel to those in other provinces, it looks like the only savings will come at the expense of the student-faculty ratio. Whatever its pedagogical merits, it is hard to imagine online education can make up for fewer professors, especially when the vast majority of students  do their learning on campus.
*Note:Approximately one-third of Thompson Rivers University full-time equivalent enrolment is in college and other courses which are not university credit courses. The BC comparator group is composed of the University of Victoria and four institutions recently designated universities.
Sources: Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO), Financial Information of Universities and Colleges; Québec university financial statements
Statistics Canada, Postsecondary Student Information System (PSIS); University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS)

This article originally appeared in the OCUFA Report. To receive stories like this every week in your inbox, please subscribe.

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