Marginal Revolution launch an online university

Development Economics, the first course, begins in October.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, editors of the hugely popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, have long been advocates of the potential of the internet, and IT more generally, to disrupt the business of education. Now they're putting their money where their mouths are, and launching MRUniversity.

Cowen lays out some of the principles:

1. The product is free (like this blog), and we offer more material in less time.

2. Most of our videos are short, so you can view and listen between tasks, rather than needing to schedule time for them. The average video is five minutes, twenty-eight seconds long. When needed, more videos are used to explain complex topics.

3. No talking heads and no long, boring lectures. We have tried to reconceptualize every aspect of the educational experience to be friendly to the on-line world.

5. We offer tests and quizzes.

10. We are pleased to announce that our first course will begin on October 1.

The real question for the nascent university – which is building on Cowen and Tabarrok's actual jobs at George Mason University in Virginia – is whether it can prove some of its founders' theories on higher education correct. There is, after all, no doubt that the course will be informative, entertaining and widely subscribed.

But there is widespread belief that the true value of education lies in its signalling effects, not actually in the knowledge imparted. So when an employer demands a BA, they don't actually care about whether someone knows English Literature to a degree level, they just want to hire the sort of person who does – smart, hard-working, focused and so on.

This is often the hurdle that online education fails to clear. Despite the fact that distance learning can be just as good at imparting knowledge as a traditional university education, the signals it gives to employers remain below-par. But Cowen particularly has been outspoken in his belief that that needn't be the case.

This, then, is his opportunity to put that belief into practice. Obviously, with just one course on offer, nobody is going to be getting a full degree from MRUniversity any time soon – but will people put it on their CVs? And will employers actually care if they do?

MRU's logo.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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