Students are paying thousands of dollars for online courses they believe are run by prestigious universities but have actually been outsourced to for-profit companies that use aggressive recruitment tactics and refer to students as “customers”.
A Guardian Australia investigation into the tertiary education sector’s growing use of external companies to run online courses has found that some have used out-of-date prerecorded lectures and involve “no actual [live] teaching”, according to one academic. Assignments are marked by gig workers who also oversee online “discussion boards”, which take the place of tutorials.
Australian universities now offer more than 850 courses, mostly online postgraduate diplomas or master’s degrees, where the course management, administration and marketing is contracted out to third-party online program management companies, or OPMs.
Molly Dragiewicz, a criminologist and domestic violence expert, told Guardian Australia she resigned from the Queensland University of Technology in 2019 in part over concerns about how a graduate certificate she designed was outsourced to an OPM.
After she left, her name remained on the course materials provided to students. Audio recordings of her lectures continued to be used.
“[One time], a woman I’d never met before came up to me and said, ‘I’m a student in your domestic violence class’. I said, ‘That’s funny because I haven’t taught that class in two years’,” Dragiewicz said.
“Students weren’t aware that I wasn’t actually their professor because the online materials had my name and voice attached.”
QUT has an agreement with Online Education Solutions – a subsidiary of the employment site Seek – to run online-only courses marketed to students as “QUT Online”.
“If you look at how these courses are marketed, people think they’re just clicking on an online course taught by a university and that’s not the case. It’s very misleading,” Dragiewicz said.
One student, a victim of domestic violence, said she tried to contact Dragiewicz in 2020 to obtain more information about lethal risk assessments, which are used to flag situations where women were at risk of being murdered.
She only discovered the academic was no longer involved in the course when she sent an email to a QUT account, which bounced back.
Dragiewicz said she became alarmed when the course was outsourced to OES.
“The graduate certificate was already taught fully online, which requires no special technology beyond what unis already have, like Blackboard or Canvas. It was already profitable for the university.
“My objection was not that it was online; I’ve been teaching online courses on DV since the 1990s. My objection was that there was no actual teaching involved.
“Given the serious implications of misinformation about domestic violence and the likelihood of personal disclosures in class, it is especially important that courses on this kind of subject matter are taught by qualified academics who can respond to student comments in real time,” she said.
Part of the way OPM companies claim to generate efficiencies running university courses is by reusing materials from year to year, including lecture recordings.
“Maybe for some classes, like math, that would be fine. But for DV it doesn’t work so great,” Dragiewicz said. “It’s an area where there are always new stats and the law changes all the time.”
‘A new model’
Emails from another student to QUT, seen by Guardian Australia, complained about the content of the QUT online graduate certificate in domestic violence.
The student said the material provided in one of these courses was “out of date” and that there were no clear study or learning outcomes.
“While I appreciate the benefits of online study for full-time workers (I am such a person) the lack of any academic discussion, tutorials or other engagement means that what is provided is basically a reading list,” she wrote.
The student told Guardian Australia the course was “out of date in terms of things that are considered contemporary thinking”.
In her emails to QUT, the student queried whether the $2,500 eight-week course “is in fact a course run by QUT as it purports to be”.
“Is the course in fact run by an online education company? Is this correct?”
In its response, the university did not mention that the course was outsourced.
“QUT Online is the part of the university that is managing our fully online courses in a newly shaped pattern of teaching. The [course] is a fully accredited QUT course, it’s just delivered under a new model,” the university wrote.
“Since the beginning of 2019 we have adopted the QUT Online model for some of our postgraduate fully online courses … This model, we believe, provides students the opportunity to undertake studies whilst managing other aspects of the lives; their work and family commitments.”
‘You feel like you’re fooling them’
A whistleblower who works for an OPM contracted to run courses for one of Australia’s top-ranked universities, who asked to remain anonymous, told Guardian Australia they had concerns that some students may be misled when registering for the courses, which they believe are run by universities.
The whistleblower said employees of the OPM – called unit coordinators – are required to use university email addresses when communicating with students.
These coordinators manage courses, but in many cases low-paid casuals – working as little as five hours a week – answer student emails and respond to online discussion boards.
“I have a [work] email and I also have a university email, even though I’m not employed by the university. I can only use [the university] email with students,” the whistleblower said.
“You feel like you’re fooling [the students] because I’m not allowed to mention [the company]. As far as the students are concerned there’s no [company].
“It’s a very well-kept secret … They think I work for the university, but the way it works I’m hoodwinking them.”
The unit coordinator said they and others are managing multiple subjects, including those “beyond our area of expertise”.
They said in most cases, course materials were designed by university academic staff, then handed to the private company to administer. The profitability of the arrangement comes from the ability to reuse material year after year.
“Students get recordings of lectures from academics. They’ve been very careful to pick sections that don’t make it sound so old. But if you want to ask something or unpack something, there’s no one there for them to talk to.
“A lot of the people I work with are not academics. I’m working with a business conglomerate or a call centre.”
‘All leads are warm’
Job advertisements show OPMs recruit “online learning advisers” to provide “moderation, marking and feedback” for courses, working flexible hours. These staff are required to have field experience and academic qualifications, but not teaching experience. New staff at one OPM undertake a 20-hour facilitation training course over three weeks.
Another ad for “course consultants” details how staff tasked with providing information about online programs are also asked to meet sales targets.
“This is a consultative sales role, which means all leads are warm and your role is to assist students once they have taken the first step to contact us,” the job ad says.
In a blog post last year, the chief operating officer of OES, Matt Parker, also wrote about “embracing students as customers”.
Guardian Australia sent questions to OES and other third-party course providers. None responded.
A QUT spokesperson said the university’s online courses “are designed and developed by QUT and offered in a partnership model with experts in online course development and delivery”.
They said QUT academics performed a “quality oversight role” on the courses.
“QUT academics oversee the units as our fully online learners engage in their units in an asynchronous manner.
“The students are fully enrolled QUT students who hold the rights and privileges as all QUT students. The courses and units undergo a rigorous and regular process of curation, accreditation and review as per QUT policies and are built specifically to support the online learner,” the spokesperson said.