Forthcoming Report!

Whatever happened to online learning? 
Lessons from Country Case Studies
Preview of Forthcoming OBHE Report




2018 Global Forum!

A Global Forum on Student Well-Being 
And Outcomes in Education

Our 2017 IBC Report!

International Branch Campuses: Success Factors of Mature IBCs 2017
The OBHE & C-BERT of SUNY, Albany & Pennsylvania State University                 
Headline Findings


Whatever happened to online learning?
Lessons from Country Case Studies

Preview of Our Forthcoming Report


The Observatory’s remit is a big one- the multitude of transnational higher education models, the plethora of commercial players active in the sector, and the complexities of online learning. This “borderless” higher education is dynamic, exciting and interrelated but can become unwieldy. Moreover, OBHE attempts to cover developments worldwide.

In 2017, we paid particular attention to online learning and blended learning. We conducted a series of country case studies- twelve of which are already available on our site- which will culminate in a summary report this spring.

Definition and Methodology

Our definition of online learning is broad, encompassing fully online degree programmes as well as blended and hybrid models; and online delivery as a component of conventional campus courses. We are interested in online learning offered by mainstream universities and colleges, but also the activities of other kinds of providers. Online learning is the latest form of distance and open learning, which has a long history in many parts of the world.

In many countries, data about online higher education is patchy, intelligence about activity fragmented, and many trends nascent, but that is precisely why cross-country comparisons and Observatory analysis is needed. Observatory staff and associates sift available government and other data, and scan reports and media coverage.

So far we’ve published case studies on: China, Egypt, England, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Sub-Saharan Africa, United Arab Emirates, and the United State of America

Additional country case studies will be included in the final report.

Preview of Findings

Twenty year on from the dotcom boom and bust, when online learning went from disruptive darling to over-hyped has-been, what is the sum total of this innovation today? The promise that new technology could dramatically widen access to higher education, enhance the student experience and lower costs was bold but reality proved more complicated.

Among the countries looked at so far, five categories emerge:

  • Distance, Not Online. Large distance learning sector with little or no use of online learning beyond some MOOC enthusiasm (e.g. Egypt, India)
  • Marginal. Strong growth in campus enrolment, with some online elements. Most distance learning is blended with in-person study centres (e.g. Saudi Arabia, UAE)
  • Blurred Growth. A poorly defined combination of informal, distance and online learning enrolment continues to out-perform the overall market (e.g. Mexico, Spain)
  • Clear Growth. A clear online distance learning sector continues to out-perform the overall market (e.g. United States)
  • Peaked/Decline. Online enrolment growth has been at the expense of the national distance university. Online enrolment is peaking or is in decline (e.g. England, South Korea)

What is common to all the countries considered so far is that online distance learning has yet to command more than 15% market share, implementation of online elements as part of a face-to-face experience is uneven, multifarious and hard to track within and between institutions, and online learning has little to no association with cost or price reduction. Moreover, outcomes data for online students is rarely reported at institutional or national level, but what data there is tends to position online learning outcomes as below average. The value proposition of online degrees quickly defaults to little more than flexibility and convenience.

But while it is fair to say that the big promises of online learning have generally speaking not come to fruition, the access, quality and cost challenges of higher education globally have not gone away. At this stage in our work, OBHE forecasts three scenarios:

Scenario 1: Online as Supplement. On this scenario, the future of online learning looks like the past. The technology adds useful functionality but supplements rather than transforms the conventional classroom. A relatively small minority of students study fully online, driven by pragmatism rather than a conviction that the experience is inherently superior.

Scenario 2: Online as Revolution (finally). Looking back, the mistake made by early advocates of online learning was timing not substance. First generation online was too limited but the capabilities of today and tomorrow- high performance two-way video, adaptive learning and simulations- transcend the shortcomings of routine in-person learning.

Scenario 3: Online Is Not the Point. The line between technology and pedagogy is blurred. Delivery mode can be a vehicle for pedagogy and shape it, but it is sound, purposeful pedagogy that fosters learning, not delivery mode alone. Many studies have concluded that a combination of in-person and online learning produces the best results, with pedagogy leading the way.

To gain access to our summary report and articles, which are exclusive to OBHE subscribers become a member or contact for more details.


Printable Flyer

29 May 2018

Ambition meets measurement: Is Malaysia’s Education Blueprint 2015-2025 delivering its education promises?

Rachael Merola, Sr Researcher, OBHE

Malaysia has established itself as one of the most dynamic and international higher education systems in the world. In part, this is the result of explicit goals set forth and outcomes measured in the country’s higher education (HE) plans. These are laid out in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025, recently modified for better alignment with new national and international requirements.
The Blueprint notes it is imperative that Malaysia compare its education system against international benchmarks to keep up with other nations’ development, and tracks outcomes in its annual report. How has the plan hastened Malaysia’s ascent to one of the most internationalized education systems in the world? What do the 2018 modifications entail?

Full article available for members.


21 May 2018

China’s “Double First Class” Project will showcase Chinese higher education in international rankings

Xiaozhou (Emily) Zhou, Research Associate, OBHE
Associate Professor, Shanghai International Studies University
Rachael Merola, Senior Researcher, OBHE

China’s latest initiative to foster excellence in higher education, the Double First Class (DFC) Project, was released in September 2017 after much anticipation. It is the largest project to date in Chinese higher education, with an allocation of 40 billion RMB ($6.04 billion USD). The project identifies 137 Chinese universities, 42 of which are identified as Double First Class Universities and 95 of which offer Double First Class Disciplines, to receive funding with the aim to increase the global prestige of the Chinese higher education system by 2049-- the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. While a project of this scale is likely to have its desired impact on higher education rankings, it is unclear what the effect will be on other performance measures, including student outcomes, graduate employability, and teaching and learning. 

Full article available for members.


11 May 2018

Getting what they came for:
Can increased tracking and transparency improve doctoral graduate outcomes?

Rachael Merola, Sr Researcher, OBHE

Doctoral graduates are key contributors to the knowledge economy, bringing knowledge and skills not found in other population sectors. The supply of PhDs in the US and Canada is growing: In the US, the most recent Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED)  reported a strong upward trend in the number of doctorates awarded, with an average annual growth of 3.3%. In 2016, 54,904 doctoral degrees were awarded. Likewise, the Conference Board of Canada reported a 68% increase in the number of PhDs awarded between 2002 and 2011, with more than 6,000 new graduates each year. 

Despite abundant supply, there is some evidence of a mismatch with demand. The SED notes that “between 1996 and 2016, all age groups saw an increase in the percentage with definite commitments during the late 1990s, followed by a gradual, though not steady, decline through the first decade of the 21st century and then a much steeper decline starting at the end of the decade.” In 2014, only 61% of graduates had lined up a “definite employment commitment” prior to graduation. 

Though there is a clear need to follow employment outcomes closely, higher education sectors in the US and Canada have struggled to consistently and accurately track and disseminate data on doctoral graduate outcomes.  Comprehensive tracking of outcomes would allow, among other things, informed decision-making among prospective students and a better alignment of program and labour market. Both of these would have a positive effect on the employment outcomes of doctoral graduates. 

This article explores what information is available and what it tells us about doctoral outcomes.

Full article available for members.


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OBHE Publications

Our research agenda focuses on topics that have current and future relevance to transnational higher education, and our reports provide in-depth analysis of the latest developments, trends and challenges in borderless higher education. By synthesising the latest international developments, the research reports assess their wider implications for higher education leaders and policy makers.

The Observatory publishes original in-house research reports on themes that challenge the 'traditional' boundaries of higher education, and particularly those expected to impact the core business of universities and colleges.

The Observatory also commissions internationally renowned authors to prepare substantive reports on key issues in borderless higher education with specific national, regional and/or international perspectives. The issues are both timely and provocative, challenging institutional leaders in their thinking and understanding of topics critical to strategic planning. Authors draw on their experience and expertise to provide insight into a wide diversity of international experience.

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To learn about the Observatory's breadth of coverage, search our publications archive.

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The Lay of the LandInside Higher Ed, 20 June 2018

Adelaide and South Australia kick off merger talksTimes Higher Education, 20 June 2018

Commissions and IncentivesInside Higher Ed, 20 June 2018

The Case for Treating International Students FairlyThe Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 June 2018

Universities look south to recruit international students, University World News, 18 June 2018

Baltic states strike deal on mutual degree recognitionTimes Higher Education (THE), 15 June 2018

Here's what college costs in 28 countries around the worldInsider, 16 June 2018

Europe watches as Dutch seek caps on English-language studentsTimes Higher Education (THE), 14 June 2018

Bright Scholar partners with Beijing NormalThe PIE News, 14 June 2018

Australian universities increase dependence on foreign feesTimes Higher Education (THE), 14 June 2018

Reforms in higher educationKazakh TV, 14 June 2018

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Forthcoming Events


17-20 June 2018:British Columbia Council for International Education (BCCIE) Summer Conference, Things we should be talking about in International Education, Vancouver, CANADA

20-22 June 2018:  HEAd'18 - 4th International Conference on Higher Education Advances, Valencia, SPAIN

25-28 June 2018:  Canada International Conference on Education (CICE), Mississauga, CANADA

29 June 2018: UUKi Workshop on Networks and Collaboration: 'The New European' TNE?, London, UK

11 July 2018:  TNE-Hub's 2nd Symposium, 'Transnational Education: Innovations in Practice', London, UK

15-18 July 2018:  World Congress on Education, Dublin, IRELAND

16-29 August 2018:  40th Annual EAIR Forum 2018, Budapest, HUNGARY

10 September 2018:  Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar, Developing the Knowledge Exchange Framework, London, UK

11-14 September 2018: EAIE 2018 Annual Conference, Geneva, SWITZERLAND

27-29 September 2018:  NACAC 74th National Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

9-12 October 2018:  AIEC 2018, Sydney, AUSTRALIA    

4-5 November 2018:  Save the date - OBHE Global Forum in partnership with KHDA, Dubai, UAE

7-10 November 2018:  CIEE Annual Conference, Barcelona, SPAIN

9 November 2018:  ACA Seminar, 'Mobility-migration nexus: policies, practicies, discourses and evidence', Brussels, BELGIUM

13-15 November 2018:  IAU 2018 International Conference, Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA


20-23 January 2019:  AIEA Annual Conference, 'What's next - Possibilities and probabilities in the future of international higher education, San Francisco, CA, USA

February 2019:  IIE Summit, 'The Future of International Education', New York, NY, USA

23-25 October 2019:  6th Conference of the Americas on International Education (CAIE), Bogota, COLOMBIA

3-7 November 2019:  28th International Council for Open and Distance Learning (ICDE) World Conference on Online Learning, 'Transforming Lives and Societies', Dublin, IRELAND

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