Cosmic Controversy: ANU Astrophysics Course Fees Under Scrutiny Over Free ANU-Run Program
By Brianna Elliott
The edX program allows anyone to have access to astrophysics information, however, there is an alternative paid version that costs between $280-$360 for the entire course. This provides users with a certificate upon completion.
However, ANU charges students a significantly higher fee upwards of $1000.
One ANU student currently undertaking ASTR1001 commented on this fee discrepancy believing it raises concerns that “ANU’s primary focus may not be the welfare and education of its students but the financial and marketing gains it can make”.
The astrophysics course is presented by Nobel Prize winning Vice Chancellor and astrophysicist, Professor Brian Schmit amongst other academics.
However, this has furthered students’ discontent leading them to a “sense of disillusionment, as it suggests that even key figures within the university prioritise profit over the students’ educational experience”.
Importantly, the first-year course, ASTR1001, not only merges four separate units into one but also is only offered online, meaning there is no in-person element.
One student undertaking the course notes this online option does “enhance accessibility for students”, but they pair this sentiment with “encountering a series of challenges… and [ASTR1001] introduces a set of hurdles” which have hindered students’ learning capabilities and understanding of concepts.
A student (who studied year 11 physics in addition to year 11 and 12 specialised maths in high school), noted, “the course has a disclaimer that says year 10 level maths and physics is assumed”, however, they “find this course difficult”. The student believes “the disclaimer is not an accurate representation of the math used and needed in this course”.
ANU Distinguished Educator and Astrophysicist Professor Paul Francis informed Observer that the main difference between these two programs is that, “for ASTR1001, we have a final written exam, marked by staff and tutors.” Whereas, “the free online course has no exam.”
Professor Francis further notes, “for ASTR1001, we pay tutors to respond to student enquiries on the discussion forum. Questions are generally answered within 24 hours, and usually faster. Students in the free online version don’t get their questions answered.”
He continues to highlight that, “it costs a lot of money to develop the online materials in the first place, and to keep them updated”. He also emphasises that while there is a fee discrepancy between the ANU run course and the edX program this is because of the time and work that is put into running both.
An ANU spokesperson adds to this, “the cost of preparation and delivery of these courses is no different to other courses at ANU”. Further stating, “while the EdX courses are offered at a reduced cost, participants do not get all the benefits of being an on-campus student enrolled in an ANU degree.”
The current ASTR1001 course convenor, Professor Francis, says that “in previous runs of this course, we have offered in-person drop-in sessions where students can get help with the course”. However, due to the extremely low attendance rates, it was decided by other faculty members to instead “offer individual help to anyone who wants it”.
Although “several students have taken up this offer [for individual assistance]”, he also added, “perhaps we should have advertised this more – not all students may realise this is available”.
One student feels that despite this individual assistance being offered, “this situation has the potential to discourage others from considering this course, given the lack of equitable support”. Adding, that this raises questions “about the true value of the education offered [by ANU]”.
However, since transitioning to an online format, this astrophysics course has seen enrolment “increased from 25 [students] per year to around 250 per year” says Professor Francis. He notes that making it online now means students “can fit [the course] around their work schedule, because they can do it over summer or winter sessions, or because they can do it remotely”.
Additionally, in recent years, the SELT/SELS Evaluations have been notably higher and well above the ANU and Science average.
Professor Francis continues to emphasise the importance of ANU students paying fees as “around half a million people have enrolled in the free online version, from 178 countries around the world, none of which would be possible without the paid ANU version”.
An ANU Spokesperson further highlights that online programs such as “EdX make it possible to reach students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to study at ANU”.
Students have put together some recommendations on how this astrophysics course could be more beneficial for their learning in the future, such as an “option to do an excursion or research piece out at the Stromlo observatory” or more “efforts to collaborate with the ANU Astronomy Society”.
The course convenor reiterates that they are “always willing to change the course if students want something different” and “if anyone finds that the course is not meeting their needs… to talk to [Professor Francis] directly or to the student representatives in the course”.
Graphics by Annisa Zatalini
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