3. Open Learning

3.2. Education for All – Except Higher Education

Open education is primarily a goal or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open education is the removal of barriers to learning. It can mean no prior qualifications to study, no discrimination by gender, race, age or religion, affordability for everyone, and for students with disabilities, through a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio recordings for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open educational program. Thus, open learning must be scalable as well as flexible.

State-funded Schools 

State-funded public education for the education of children from around the age of five through to sixteen or in some countries eighteen is the most extensive and widespread form of open education. For example, the British government passed 1870 Education Act that set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. Although there were some fees to be paid by parents, the Act established the principle that education would be paid for mainly through taxes and no child would be excluded for financial reasons. Schools would be administered by elected local school boards (Living Heritage, undated).

Over time, access to publicly funded education in most economically developed countries have been widened to include all children up to the age of 18. UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults, supported, at least in principle, by 164 national governments. Nevertheless today there are over 250 million of ‘out-of-school’ children, adolescents and youth worldwide (UNESCO, 2018), or roughly one in five.

Post-secondary Education

Access to post-secondary or higher education has been more limited than access to schools, partly on financial grounds, but also in terms of ‘merit’. Universities have required those applying for university to meet academic standards determined by prior success in school examinations or institutional entry exams. This has enabled elite universities in particular to be highly selective.

However, after the Second World War, the demand for an educated population, both for social and economic reasons, in most economically advanced countries resulted in the gradual expansion of universities and post-secondary education in general. In most OECD countries, roughly 35-60 percent of an age cohort will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Especially in a digital age, there is an increasing demand for highly qualified workers, and post-secondary education is a necessary gateway to most of the best jobs. Therefore, there is increasing pressure for full and free open access to post-secondary, higher or tertiary education.

The Cost of Widening Access

As we already saw the cost of widening access to ever-increasing numbers results in increased financial pressure on governments and taxpayers. Following the financial crisis of 2008, many states in the USA found themselves in severe financial difficulties, which resulted in substantial funding cuts to the U.S. higher education system (see, for instance, Rivera, 2012), which in turn resulted in a rapid increase in tuition fees.

It is probably more than co-incidental that other forms of open education such as MOOCs and OER arose at a time of increasing cuts to the funding of public education in the USA. Solutions that enable increased access without a proportionate increase in funding or tuition fees are almost desperately being sought by governments and institutions. It is against this background that the renewed interest in open education should be framed.