With all the chat recently about reducing unit costs through ever-larger instructional units (e.g. MOOCs), it occurred to me that the world already has a lot of models for this. They just aren’t in the developed world.
University World News recently carried a very interesting article regarding a new higher education master plan in Nigeria. One of the plan’s key elements is to construct a half-dozen “mega-universities” – each with 100-150,000 students – to soak up the rising demand for higher education. On the one hand, this plan is self-evidently mad: large Nigerian universities are already a violent and lawless mess, plagued with cults such as the Black Axe and the Supreme Vikings (I wrote about them a couple of years ago: here); surely these new, even larger campuses will face even bigger gang problems. On the other hand, you can sort of see where Nigeria’s coming from on this. Thanks to some truly staggering levels of corruption, the ability of Nigeria to use public funds to meet demand for higher education is quite small – currently just $1.4 billion to cover expenses at 33 federal universities. So the solution is simple – go big, and keep unit costs low. Just like MOOCs.
Actually, the way access has been increased in much of the developing world is through strategies like this. The world’s largest universities are Open Universities – Indira Gandhi in India (3.5 million), and Anadolu in Turkey (2 million). The largest residential schools are ones with multiple constituent campuses. The reigning world champion here is Islamic Azad University in Iran – a private school with 350 locations, 1.5 million students, and a very significant endowment of contested legality (I don’t buy the $200 billion number, but it’s substantial nonetheless).
What about single-campus institutions? On the Indian subcontinent, there are a handful (e.g. Delhi, Pune) which boast enrolments of 400K plus, but most of those students are not residential – rather, they study at a college somewhere, and simply take the Delhi or Pune exams. For really big schools, you need to go to places like the University of Buenos Aires (300K plus) or UNAM in Mexico City (250K plus). The University of Cairo, at about 150K, is the biggest in Africa; it’s also generally considered the continent’s best school outside of South Africa, which may explain Nigeria’s attraction to the model.
William Gibson once said that the future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. So it is. These mega-institutions can provide some lessons about the perils and promises of uber-massification through mega-universities. We probably shouldn’t ignore them just because they’re happening offline and in poor countries.