Université Téluq (2022) La distance qui nous rapproche de notre rêve Québec City: Téluq
Originally called Télé-université, Université Téluq, the francophone equivalent of Athabasca University, is 50 years old today. It was established in 1972, one year after the British Open University opened in 1971.
As with most open universities, it has had a somewhat bumpy ride, at one time being integrated within the system-wide Université du Québec, but since 2012, it has been an autonomous university in its own right within the Québec higher education system.
Today Téluq enrols about 20,000 students a year. It is a fully distance university, today using video-conferencing, video, online forums, and the web. Its subject experts are supported by multidisciplinary teams focusing on learning-centred distance education course design. The aim is to support each learner individually to ensure success.
To celebrate its anniversary, Téluq is offering this year 30 grants to existing students worth C$50,000, and 10 grants of $1,000 to new students.
Congratulations to Téluq for providing a much needed service to francophone students in Québec and beyond for 50 years. It has been particularly valuable to francophones with jobs, parents with young children, members of the armed forces, elite athletes who are constantly travelling, and students with disabilities.
Open and distance universities in the 21st century
But after 50 years, is there still a need for specifically open and distance universities?
To analyse the continuing role, we need to distinguish between ‘distant’ and ‘open.’ (I am not sure if Téluq considers itself an open university, but it is definitely a distance-teaching – ‘formation à distance’ – university, and it certainly prides itself in supporting students who cannot access easily conventional university programs).
Aren’t all universities doing ‘distance’ now?
By 2019, a national survey of Canadian universities and colleges indicated that almost all universities (93%) were offering some fully online or distance courses for credit (Johnson, 2019). Covid-19 and the move to emergency remote learning has merely increased the number and extent of online courses.
Secondly, when open and distance universities were established in the 1970s, the proportion of high school leavers going on to university was much lower than today (in the UK, in 1969, only 8% went on to university; in Canada, 66% now go on to some form of post-secondary education).
However, the majority of students in Canada are taking just one or two online courses as part of their on-campus program. The total number of course enrolments on fully online courses across all Canadian universities is still under 15 per cent, although in some institutions, such as Université Laval and the British Columbia Institute of Technology, it is as high as 40%.
Nevertheless, some conventional universities have also started offering complete undergraduate degree programs fully online. For instance, students can start a B.Tech program in computing at Mohawk College then transfer to McMaster University to complete the last two years fully online. Similarly, Queen’s University is offering a fully online B.Tech in mining engineering aimed at working miners across Ontario. Many more universities, such as the University of British Columbia, are offering a number of fully online professional masters’ programs.
Entirely fully online undergraduate programs though are still quite rare in Canada, the main providers still being Athabasca University, Thompson Rivers-Open Learning, and TÉLUQ. So there is still a niche for fully distance undergraduate programs.
What does ‘open’ mean?
Most conventional universities still require students to meet undergraduate or graduate admission requirements in order to take a fully online or distance course.
‘Open’ institutions on the other hand have as part of their core mission to reach those not served by the conventional system. Some institutions, such as Thompson Rivers-Open Learning, allow students to count already existing qualifications or prior learning, so that they do not have to re-take courses, or can skip parts of programs. Open universities may still charge a tuition fee but it may be considerably lower than tuition fees at conventional universities.
‘Open’ though always has its limits. Students will need relatively high levels of prior literacy and numeracy and most open universities have some standards for admission (the UK Open University requires a high proficiency in English, for example). Some provide optional preparatory courses to enable students to cope better with university-level studies. Athabasca University accepts undergraduate students to a program as long as they pass the minimum age restriction of 16 years of age and demonstrate English language proficiency. Téluq requires high school qualifications or ‘relevant prior knowledge’ for those 21 years and over. Athabasca then is more ‘open’ than Téluq with respect to admission requirements.
Nevertheless it would be stretching the definition of ‘open’ to call Athabasca or Téluq open universities in terms of cost. The fees at Téluq are roughly $300-$400 per course, or about $4,000 for the equivalent of one years full time study, although most students will spread the cost over a number of years. Téluq’s fees are more or less in line with other universities in Québec, which vary considerably depending on the origin of students. Athabasca University’s fees are similar to Téluq’s, and only about 25% below those of the University of Alberta. The UK Open University’s fees are the equivalent of about C$5,000 per year, considerably less than the very high average tuition fees in the United Kingdom, which are the equivalent of C$14,000 a year. Thus even at open universities, the cost is still high for many low-income students.
For many students, then, savings on costs is not a reason for choosing an open or distance university in Canada. It is their flexibility, in terms of distance delivery, but that advantage is increasingly being whittled away by conventional universities as they move increasingly into fully online learning and especially blended learning. In particular, the move to blended learning will increase flexible access in conventional universities. Nevertheless, there is still a market for open and distance universities for fully online programs, especially undergraduate programs wholly available online.
The other challenge for distance and open universities is the problem of legacy systems. Most wholly distance and open universities were created in the 1970s and 80s. They were built around primarily high quality printed materials supported by technologies such as broadcasting and computing. Their course design models involved large course teams and took months if not years before courses were ready. There was a strong division of labour between production, and delivery and student support, the latter being the responsibility of a large cohort of part-time tutors. These tutors have in many cases unionized and have strongly resisted the move to online learning.
At the same time, conventional universities, without the old legacy systems, have been able to move more nimbly into online learning, with smaller course development teams, and integrated design and delivery, while still maintaining quality (at least, until emergency remote learning).
The challenge then for distance and open universities in the 21st century is three fold:
- to maintain their position in an increasingly competitive market (for instance the campus-based Université Laval has more online course enrolments than both Athabasca and Téluq)
- to provide relevant and high quality programs to those still not able to access easily the programs of conventional higher education institutions
- to provide more advanced, more nimble and less costly distance programs that can match or exceed in quality those of the conventional universities.
This will require considerable flexibility and continuous innovation on the part of existing distance and open universities. But then I’m sure they already know this.
So congratulations to Téluq for reaching fifty years of distance learning, and good luck with the next fifty years.
Johnson, N. (2019) Tracking Online Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: National Survey of Online and Digital Learning 2019 National Report Halifax NS: Canadian Digital Learning Research Association