Bitcoin tuition payments: Revolution or PR stunt?

A university in England has become the first public institution to accept the digital currency bitcoin as payment for course fees, though the announcement has some skeptics decrying the move as a publicity stunt.

bitcoinThe University of Cumbria will initially accept bitcoin payments for two programs – a certificate of achievement in sustainable exchange and a postgraduate certificate in sustainable leadership – starting at the end of this year.

“We believe in learning by doing, and so to help inform our courses on complementary currencies, we are trialing the acceptance of them,” said Jem Bendell, the founder and director of the university’s Institute for Leadership and Sustainability. “The internal discussions about currency and payment innovation and the practical implications for different departments have been insightful.”

Bitcoin is an open-sourced online currency, a completely digital form of money that can be shared through a peer-to-peer payment network.

Though this “crypto-currency” lacks any national origin or backing, it still operates with an exchange rate like physical money – meaning it usually costs traditional currency to obtain the digital kind.

Right now, one bitcoin costs about $800, though the market is constantly changing.

“Target students probably don’t already have ready access to bitcoin and will have to buy it in order to pay their tuition fees, so the move is probably best seen as a publicity stunt than a real convenience,” wrote Mark D. Ryan, a professor of computer security at University of Birmingham.

Cumbria is not the only university to recently begin taking the crypto-currency seriously.

In November 2013, the University of Nicosia, a private university in Cyprus, began accepting bitcoin as payment for tuition.

At John Hopkins University, researchers are trying to create their own digital currency called zerocoin. Other alternatives to bitcoin already exist, including dogecoin, which is named after the popular doge meme.

Interest in digital currency like bitcoin has exploded in recent months, due to its rapid growth and its connection to illegal activities.

A 2013 report by Merrill Lynch and Bank of America predicted that bitcoin could eventually account for ten percent of all online transactions, and it currently has a market capitalization of more than $8 billion. At the same time, the currency’s unregulated and international nature has made it a favorite among cybercriminals and those who purchase drugs online.

The FBI in October 2013 shut down Silk Road, an online black market that was believed to have been the home of 9 percent of all drug transactions using bitcoin. The U.S. government seized the equivalent of more than $30 million in bitcoins from the site and its alleged owner, Ross Ulbricht.

Speaking to the European technology website Tech Week, Gordon Fletcher, a senior lecturer in information systems at the University of Salford, said the University of Cumbria’s decision to accept bitcoin may be driven by marketing plans rather than the need to make a firm political statement on the currency.

“The acceptance of bitcoin is a de facto acceptance of the power and legitimacy of citizen-generated currencies as having genuine economic value,” Fletcher said. “A greater test of Cumbria’s commitment and understanding of crypto-currency would be to also accept dogecoin.”

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