You can go to Harvard in Hubbards, and to Princeton in Pugwash. That’s the way of the future in higher education, says the head of a Halifax think tank.

“Your physical presence on the campus is not required,” says Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president at Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

This alternative approach to higher learning, Cirtwill calls the “bits and bytes model,” isn’t confined to the current bricks and mortar model. Internet-based lectures and exams, after-hours classes and more flexible learning is already happening at some schools and will eventually become the most cost-effective way to deliver higher education.

“What’s going to drive it now is the fact that we’re going to have a demographic crunch coming that is going to result in fewer professors, we’re going to have fewer students, and the students are going to have to be working while studying,” Cirtwill said. 

He pointed to the market opportunity at Mount Saint Vincent University, already a leader in distance education in Halifax. “They could deliver female-oriented post-secondary education to hundreds of thousands of women in the United States who have no other way to access post-secondary,” Cirtwill said.

“Think of the growth the Mount could do, the staff they could hire, the interesting research projects they could fund from delivering online education, and not to mention, the difference they could have in those women’s lives.”

Cirtwill spoke about the issue during a panel at the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations’ three-day conference on higher education in Halifax.

Alex Usher, Educational Policy Institute director, was also a panelist. He said that while there’s room for efficiency and greater articulation between schools, he doesn’t see the same revolutionary change on the horizon.

“Universities are finishing schools for our society,” Usher said.  “I just don’t feel it changing.

“… A lot of what you’re learning from (age) 18 to 22 is about talking to people and getting information out of them.”