How to Create a Tuition Free, Public, Online University to Produce Free Online Textbooks and Courses


Back in 1969, a Labor government in Britain created the British Open University – a mega-university with an enrollment large enough (250,000 students) to create its own textbooks and online courses. It had an economy of scale in the development and maintenance of online content.

The US federal government could create a US Open University that could be the one public university that the federal government makes “tuition free.” Like the British Open University, it would have the economy of scale to create its own textbooks and online courses. Unlike the British OU, the US Open University would be tuition free and it could put its content and software in the public domain (or release it under an appropriate creative commons license).

Note, however, that a US Open University could put other schools out of business. Non-profit colleges and universities in the US are used to competing with public colleges and universities that do charge some tuition. However, these private sector colleges and universities may not be able to compete with an entity that does not charge any tuition. So, they might go belly up.

Since the British Open University does have physical teaching centers (around 300 of them scattered around Britain), a US Open University may also need to have similar physical facilities. So, if schools do go belly up, the US Open University may be able to acquire their campus facilities (building, dorms, libraries, etc.) for less than it would take to build said facilities from scratch. So, there’s a silver lining if schools do go belly up.

Finally, a US Open University may want to borrow the governance structure of the British Open University that makes it possible to develop and maintain online textbooks and courses. Traditional colleges and universities do not have a governance structure that is well suited for this task. That is one reason why the British developed their OU from scratch. They did not try to reform existing schools in Britain that had a governance structure that was really designed for face-to-face instruction, not for developing and maintaining online content.

The Whys and Hows of Free Textbooks

Many support the idea of having “free” online textbooks and courses, but there are many ways to go about achieving these objectives. But, before getting into the how, let’s first look at the why. In other words, is there some problem with the commercial textbook and online course market? And, even if so, why shouldn’t we just let existing institutions finance the development of online textbooks and courses? Why create a brand new institution (e.g. a US Open University patterned after the British Open University) that would be dedicated to the creation of “free” online textbooks and courses?

I’ll begin by looking at the high cost of textbooks and the presentation I made on this subject back in 2007.

Congressional Testimony on the High Cost of Textbooks

In 2007, I testified before a House Congressional committee looking into the high cost of textbooks.

There were two parts to my testimony:

  1. How to produce and maintain high quality online textbooks and courses.

For a small fraction of the cost of having students buy commercial textbooks, one could pay to have online textbooks and the content for online courses developed and maintained. When I testified before congress, students were spending $900/year on commercial textbooks. My alternative entailed buying out the British Open University, which would cost a coalition of 1,000 schools around $3.25 per student per year. Obviously, another way to do this would be to have the Federal Government pay for it, or a coalition of state governments. In either case, this would pay for high quality online textbook development and maintenance for 200 year long courses (or 400 semester long courses).

Here’s the paper I wrote on this subject back in 2005.

The Case for Creative Commons Textbooks

  1. How to persuade faculty to select open online textbooks.

This part of my presentation to Congress in 2007 covered three options:

  • the Jawbone – a simple library resource model that assumes that if we build it and tell them about it (jawbone them) then they will come.
  • the Stick – an administrative fiat model where we tell faculty that they have to use open content as a substitute for commercial textbooks.
  • the Carrot – a financial incentives model that would involve student fees, faculty stipends, and refunds of unused fees.

At the time of my testimony to Congress back in 2007, I favored the Carrot model. Lately, however, I’ve been giving more thought to the Stick model, which is a very top down approach.

Here’s a paper I wrote on this subject back in 2007.

Persuading Faculty to Select Open Textbooks

The Idea of a Public Online University

One top down way to force faculty to use open content would be to establish a public online university patterned after the British OU in the USA. However, unlike the British OU, in the US either the Federal Government, or a coalition of States, would fund a US-OU to produce and maintain open content that would be free to the public.

Further, the US-OU would be tuition free as well. This is similar to the idea put forward by Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Unlike the Sanders plan, however, existing public schools would have to continue to charge tuition. This would attract a large number of students to the US-OU, which may put a number of schools that charge tuition out of business. Note that this is also the case with the Sanders plan (i.e. his plan would put a number of private colleges out of business if they are not able to compete with “free”).

With my plan, the US-OU would take over the campuses of the schools that go out of business and hire faculty with contracts that oblige them to use the open content produced at US-OU headquarters

This would force the issue of how to get faculty to use open content – that’s why I call it the stick model.

Note that the British OU does have teaching centers even though it is mostly known for doing distance education. The faculty who work out of these teaching centers are obliged to use the content developed at British OU headquarters in Milton Keynes England.

Also note that when the British created the OU back in 1969, they did not do so by trying to convert existing schools. In the US, we are making a massive effort to get schools to transition to online education, which means we have to fight to change the deeply rooted existing cultures in these schools. My “stick” approach as well as the approach the British took to create their OU are both top down ways of forcing change. Note that the British approach worked. So, we have an existence proof that top down change models in higher education can work.



Professor Arvan, I’ve always been on the look out for economics professors who are also interested in educational technology. I worked in ed-tech at UC Berkeley from 1987-2007. In my last year there, I had a chance to testify before a House committee looking into the high cost of textbooks. (My 15 minutes of fame.)

My proposal was to have the committee look into the economics of how the British Open University develops and maintains online content. Long story short, I suggested that the US should either emulate the British Open University or simply buy them out and put the content in the public domain… Since then, I’ve always been interested in how econ faculty would view my proposal for starting a US Open University, one patterned after the UK Open University but with one major exception – the US Open University would put its content in the public domain.

When Sanders proposed the idea of tuition-free public higher education (i.e. paid for by tax payers, obviously), I’ve been touting the idea of combining the Sanders proposal with my US Open University proposal. Instead of trying to make all institutions of HE tuition-free (which would be nice but very expensive) why not do what the Brits did back in 1969 – create a nation wide Online Open University. However, now to address the high cost of textbooks, the US open university would put its content in the public domain.


Thanks for the comment. Free online content is one thing. For the large intro courses I’m sure that exists already. And if the students already have strong self-teaching skills, that may be sufficient. Though I’m retired I had been teaching one course each fall on the Econ of Organizations – aimed at juniors and seniors. My sense of things based on that experience is typical undergrads at the University of Illinois don’t have those strong self-teaching skills and they need a lot of coaching to internalize what they are being taught. That coaching is labor intensive. I know many people are focused on the sticker price now, but they really should care more about whether the education is effective and substantial.


LannyA, your point that not all students have the self-learning skills to study on their own is very well taken. This is why it’s important for those who are pushing the idea of online education to look at online educators who have a long track record. The British OU has been at it since 1969. Also, note that the British OU does offer face-to-face learning opportunities at their learning centers. I’m sure that part of the reason for having these F2F teaching centers is to address the problem of learners who do not have the self-teaching skills you mention.

The UKOU has around 300 learning centers scattered around the UK. Of course, to have a US Open University emulate the UK OU exactly, we would have to provide something like the UKOU’s learning centers as well. This would be expensive, especially if we had to create these learning centers from scratch. And, some would argue that said learning centers would be redundant with our existing campuses.

On the other hand, existing campuses may be willing to collaborate with a USOU. Also, if existing campuses had to still charge a tuition, and the USOU was tuition-free, then some (many?) existing campuses may go belly-up (unless they found a way to collaborate with the USOU). If/when a school goes belly-up, then the USOU may be able to acquire the campus facilities at a significant discount.

BTW: the tuition-free public education idea put forward by Bernie Sanders also faces push-back from schools that would still have to charge tuition. These schools are used to competing with public schools that charge tuition, but they may not be ready to compete with “free.”


I’m hearing a lot of that pushback.
Isn’t the community college system close to an USOU learning center approach?


First, let’s recall that the two greatest innovations in EdTech – the development of writing and the invention of the printing press – both put a lot of academics out of work. Writing put a lot of story tellers out of a job, the printing press a lot of scribes.

Today, the pushback to using technology to reduce the cost of education is from faculty do not want to look for ways to use technology to innovate themselves out of a job. Similarly, they also do not want to look for ways to change the governance structure of higher education if these changes would enable HE to look for ways to use technology to reduce the cost of instruction.

The folks who started the UKOU knew they would need a very different governance structure, which is one of the main reasons why they wanted to start from scratch when they created the UKOU. In particular, they did not try to reform existing institutions precisely because they knew there would be pushback from faculty working in the context of these tradition bound institutions.

The community college system in the US has a very different governance structure from that of the British Open University.

So, if we started a US Open University patterned after the UKOU, then we would want to emulate much of their governance structure.

Here are two ways the governance structure of a mega-university (i.e. one that was big enough to develop its own content) would be different from a traditional college or university in the US:

  1. Different employment contracts for faculty who develop content

In the UKOU senior faculty have been specifically hired to develop and maintain content. Content development and maintenance would specifically be within the “course and scope of their employment contract.” (A USOU would want to do the same.)

In the US, on the other hand, faculty at almost all colleges and universities think of content development and maintenance as being “outside the course and scope” of their employment contract with their school. If they develop a textbook, they generally cut a deal with a publisher, but the school is not a part of that deal.

  1. Different employment contracts for faculty who select content for the courses they teach

Furthermore, teaching faculty at the UKOU (i.e. the ones who work out of the learning centers) have an obligation to use the content and lesson plans developed by the senior faculty who generally work at UKOU headquarters in Milton Keynes England.

However, UKOU senior faculty don’t just “throw the content over the wall” to the teaching faculty. The latter do get to participate in content/lesson_plan development (refinement) teams. So, they do have input. Nevertheless, the senior faculty do head up the development team efforts.

In the US, on the other hand, faculty at almost all colleges and universities think of textbook selection and lesson plan development as being under their jurisdiction.

Notice that this creates a big risk in the US for those who want to spend a lot of money on the development of high quality content: If you spend a lot of money to develop it, they may not come.

But big distance education mega-universities such as the UKOU have a governance structure designed to avoid this risk.

How do they do that, you ask: Their teaching faculty are obliged to use the content developed by their senior faculty.

Notice that the governance structure of the UKOU puts the senior faculty in a much better position to look for ways to reduce the cost of education through the use of technology. Furthermore, they should be more willing to do so because their own jobs are not being put at risk.


Beshears, Frederick M. (by topic)

David L. Kirp on the British Open University

This blog post provides quotes from a book by Berkeley Professor David L. Kirp. He talks about how the British Open University develops and maintains online courses. I call this the Professional Development Team approach.

Tony Bates on the Lone Ranger Model of Courseware Development

This blog post provides quotes from Tony Bates on the way faculty at most traditional schools go about developing course material. The professor play the role of the Lone Ranger, while the professor’s graduate student assistant plays the role of Tonto.

Tutored Video Instruction

In addition to the cost of commercial textbooks, there is also the cost of preparing and delivering lectures.

I’ve long advocated the idea of at least experimenting with on campus use of Tutored Video Instruction, which was initially developed at Stanford back in the early 1970s – almost 50 years ago – for their distance education program. To my knowledge, they never used it for on-campus education. That would be too radical.

I’m not saying that we should simply replace those who now earn a living preparing and delivering lectures with some modern day version of TVI. My point is that their time and energy could be reallocated to other tasks that might improve the quality of education. For example, they could move from discussion group to discussion group to interact directly with students.

Here’s a blog post that describes my efforts to get a TVI experiment started at Berkeley, and how it was shut down by senior faculty who wanted to preserve the status quo.

For more on how Tutored Video Instruction works, see:

John Seely Brown on Tutored Video Instruction

The High Tech Small Study Group Saga

Lessons in remote learning from the 1970s: A Q&A with James Gibbons

The former dean of Stanford Engineering looks to experiments he did more than 45 years ago to help answer the question that’s on everyone’s mind: How will online learning work out?

By Andrew Myers

August 14, 2020

The Polymath Professor’s Role in Online Education

In the item above on Tutored Video Instruction, I mentioned the idea of having instructors who could move from one small discussion group to another. The next question is whether the traditional professor, especially the research professor, is ideally suited for this activity in undergraduate courses. In a graduate course, you do want research faculty. Further, they want to teach graduate level courses because they tend to dovetail nicely with the research professor’s research interests. At the undergraduate level, however, it is not clear that hyper-specialized research faculty are best suited to meet the needs of undergraduates. In my opinion, we need to have more polymath professors, more generalists involved in undergraduate education.

Beshears, Frederick M. (by date)

In the Midst of the Pandemic, Academia Rediscovers Tutored Video Instruction

Opposition To Academic Labor Saving Technology At UC Berkeley

The live-versus-recorded lecture debate.

Governance Structure: one reason it is so hard to reduce the cost of instruction in Higher Education with information technology.

Two Books on the Cost of Higher Education by William Bowen

Writing and Printing: Two Innovations That Disrupted Academia

Review of the Locus of Authority by William Bowen

Butrymowicz, Sarah

A crisis is looming for U.S. colleges — and not just because of the pandemic
More than 500 colleges and universities show warning signs of financial stress in at least two areas, The Hechinger Report’s analysis found.

By Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report and Pete D’Amato, The Hechinger Report
Aug. 4, 2020

Galloway, Scott

PBS Newshour interview with Scott Galloway on the Economics of Higher Education in the time of Covid-19
Hari Sreenivasan of the PBS Newshour interviews Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing, NYU Stern School of Business

If you’re on a waiting list for an elite top tier university, you might be getting a call this year. That’s the prediction from NYU professor Scott Galloway. He’s the host of a new show on Vice called “No Mercy, No Malice,” which pulls back the curtain on the decisions and players driving America’s economy. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to explain why this might be a good chance to take a gap year.

Plotkin, Hal

A Proposal to Establish the U.S. Digital Progress Administration
by Hal Plotkin

Rogoff, Kenneth

When Will Tech Disrupt Higher Education
by Kenneth Rogoff
Feb 5, 2018

Will Universities Learn from Lockdowns?
by Kenneth Rogoff
Jul 6, 2020

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