A new Baltic-based venture, designed to make it easier for international students to access UK online higher education courses, is set to be launched this autumn, and it is already attracting support and interest from some of Britain’s leading universities.
Called UCORS (University and College Online Registration System) the new business is a response to the worldwide explosion in popularity and sophistication of online teaching, a form of distance learning increasingly seen as a cost-effective and flexible route to career-enhancing qualifications.
UCORS backers draw on that company’s decade of experience of working with higher education institutions in the UK, the Baltics and elsewhere.
It is the first company to seek to rationalise the currently haphazard online offerings of various types of higher education establishments. Typically these can sometimes involve multiple systems and facilities, sometimes offered by a single university or college.
UCORS research has shown that the online offering is often seen as the “poor relation” amongst an institution’s portfolio of degree options. The company cites instances even of senior university administrative staff being unaware of the existence of online courses offered by their own institution.
When added to the existing language and cultural impediments that prevent overseas students from finding the right course, confusion from providers over what online courses an institution actually offers means that overseas students are likely to face difficulty in researching and accessing the optimum online options. The problem occurs even when potential students are strongly motivated to seek the best higher degree for themselves in a foreign country.
UCORS claims that it will be the first organisation to present the range of offerings in an easily accessible web format to overseas students, initially focusing on the Baltics, Russia and the CIS. UCORS.org allows potential students to search by subject and by university, and is intended to provide more usefully calibrated match-making between students and the higher education providers, based on levels of attainment and annual
Charles Cormack, chief executive of trade facilitation company CCG who helped found UCORS told BQ Baltic: “It’s a fact that British universities are investing substantially in online education, but they are also failing to get the student numbers they wanted and expected for their online courses.”
“In addition, our research has found that there is a very high failure or drop-out rate, in some cases with up to 80% of students who start an online course failing to complete it. Discovering this statistic made us think that we had to find a way to increase student numbers and cut the failure rate, especially as the pedagogy and technology deployed in the delivery of online degrees is improving every year.”
As well as highlighting the “growing, unquenchable demand for UK education around the world”, Cormack added that increasingly restrictive visa conditions would also feed demand for online teaching, as some students were prevented from attending courses in person. Increasingly accessible online courses, he said, might have a part to play in enabling universities to sustain their economic models, despite physical restrictions on high fee-paying students from outside the EU. There was also increasing awareness that online courses are identical to those taught on-campus. And that employers are starting to recognise that graduates of online courses have a proven ability to combine, successfully, work and online study.
“They will have to make their numbers up” Cormack said. “Market conditions are moving in our direction, as was shown by a report last year from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency that showed that there was a 5% increase in people taking a British university course, and a substantial amount of this increase came from online.”
“There is no doubt that online education will become more and more important, a fact that has been well recognised by Government ministers and university academics in the UK.”
Based in Riga, UCORS is being project managed by Mariia Shekhireva, a graduate of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga (SSER) with a background in web management and market research. She told BQ Baltic that UCORS.org was being soft-launched in the Baltics as a pilot market, before being launched on a larger scale across Russia and the CIS in November. The company is now in the process of finalising agreements with participating universities and colleges, which include Birmingham City University, Leicester University, Edinburgh Napier University and Bradford University.
UCORS has been seed-financed by the Imprimatur Capital Seed Fund in Latvia. Managing Partner Toby Moore said: “Online education has global growth potential and we are impressed by the UCORS team, their relationships with UK universities and their ambition to expand the business
Shekhireva described the business model as “good for everyone – the students, the universities and ourselves. ”It involves the student finding our free-to-use website via our use of search engine optimisation, and accessing the universities through us. If the student then goes on to take the course, we earn a fee, the scale of which varies from institution to institution. The student gets access to the course that is most appropriate for them, the university gets a high-quality student whom they otherwise would not have recruited, and we are paid for helping the university to recruit such a student.”
Currently stress-testing and de-bugging its software in the relatively low-volume Baltic markets, UCORS is reluctant to predict revenue for its first year, but is already making plans for further expansion beyond its projected core market of Russia and the CIS. “We are considering predictions based on what we know about the volume of search traffic for certain terms, but Russia is a hard market to predict and a lot will come down to the success of our marketing strategy”. Shekhireva said.
She added: “It is a widely held view in these countries that the UK offers high quality education, which is why we are starting by building on our strong university relationships there. We have to start somewhere, though as this is an online venture, there is no reason that there aren’t top-ranked universities in other countries who we already have relations with, which we might want to partner with in future.”