An edited and abridged version of this paper appeared in the Multimedia section of the Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 April 1996.

‘Information wants to be free’

How will the virtual university be financed? Eli Noam observes (not altogether approvingly) of “electronic forms of instruction” that “the point is not that they are superior to face-to-face teaching …, but that they can be provided at dramatically lower cost”. Separating out course provision from administration means that the utility itself, together with its lesser accommodation needs than the physical university and a greater number of students passing through its virtual doors, will be able to operate at smaller costs. Income will ultimately come from individual students and CLRCs through enrolment fees, while the public CLRCs themselves may continue to be funded as the museums, libraries, hospitals, prisons, and such like, that they are now.

What will it cost the learner? I’ve heard the pay-as-you-learn ‘jukebox’ model proposed, with the learner paying per time unit of access. While the idea of information as an on-tap, on-demand, utility on a par with electricity, gas and water has a certain appeal, it seems clear to me that ‘slot-machine learning’ will tempt learners—especially those on low incomes—to cut corners. Just as our current generation of students lose out in often being unable to spend money on every more expensive course books, online learners will ‘cut classes’ if they are having to constantly watch the meter. And in both cases the cost finally may be passed on to the employer and to society as a whole in the form of an under-trained, under-motivated entry-level workforce. In an Information Age that is seeing already a uncoupling of cost from distance in telephony, and where time is becoming less relevant, it would be a retrograde step to charge by the minute.

In the Circle model, the only variable cost to learners is connection time. A fixed flat-rate enrolment fee with low-cost flat-rate public access through CLRCs should bring education within the budgets of a greater number of learners than can afford to attend the traditional university.