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A quote from The Economist (Higher education: The attack of the MOOCs):

He thinks this will drive a dramatic reduction in the price of a traditional higher education, that will reduce the total revenues of existing providers by far more than the revenue gained by the start-ups.

Here, as I understand, the indefinite article helps to convey generic reference (= the price of a typical higher education course).

But generic reference may also be conveyed by:

  1. THE + count noun

  2. zero article + noncount (mass) noun

As I understand, the 1st option would be wrong here, because to get the generic meaning, we should use THE only with count singular nouns ("THE owl is a night bird").

He thinks this will drive a dramatic reduction in the price of the traditional higher education, that will reduce the total revenues of existing providers by far more than the revenue gained by the start-ups.

It will mean "the price that the Government (or the country's businesses and citizens combined) pay/s to keep up the country's higher education system", IMHO.

My question is: am I right in this assumption, and what would the meaning of "higher education" be if we use the zero article:

He thinks this will drive a dramatic reduction in the price of traditional higher education, that will reduce the total revenues of existing providers by far more than the revenue gained by the start-ups.

Would this also mean "the higher education system as a whole", not a single typical course?

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    Copper, as far as I know, but I cannot help you further, 1) "a" is correct; 2) "the" is wrong, except the case in which, for example, you refer to a particular education (... the British traditional higher education ...), 3) "zero article" is wrong, except you want to say ... of traditional higher educations ... (note the "s"). – user114 Jul 28 '13 at 18:35
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    Idiomatically, the is less likely in this exact context, but it could be used without being "wrong". All three versions would normally be understood to mean the same thing (the price of traditional education for any particular individual). If the intended meaning was the collective cost the word cost would probably be used, but that would be an unusual thing to refer to unless a single entity (i.e. - the State) was paying for it. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 28 '13 at 18:36
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    I believe that, in this context, the phrase "the price of a traditional higher education" does not refer to "the price of a typical higher education course"; rather, it refers to the total cost of a 2- or 4-year degree program. Essentially, the writer is theorizing that MOOCs might drive an educational paradigm shift, whereby online technologies are used to create more affordable educational opportunities for the masses. – J.R. Jul 28 '13 at 20:04
  • @J.R: Thanks for the correction; I've picked a wrong term (a calque from the Russian term "курс обучения"), I meant "program". – CowperKettle Jul 29 '13 at 11:40
  • @FumbleFingers: Thanks for the answer! I'd thought that THE was wrong and picked zero article, then did a comparison and decided to investigate upon discovering a mismatch with the original text. So THE also is not technically wrong. Interesting. – CowperKettle Jul 29 '13 at 11:44
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The noun phrase traditional higher education can refer collectively to all such education, or to a single instance of it (as received by a single person, or offered by a single academic institution).

It's just the same as, for example, vintage brandy. This could be used a "generic" reference to the subclass of all brandy that was kept in the cask up until it was bottled (in which case it's a "non-count" noun, that doesn't normally take an article). Or it could refer to any level of "subset" (vintage brandy from a particular supplier, region, and/or year, for example, right down to a specific actual bottle, or glassful).

I'll illustrate usage with the brandy - partly because I like it more, but mainly because it's more likely to be used in a wider range of contexts, so it can be perfectly natural to say all of the following...

1: "I can't afford vintage brandy"
This always a "generic" reference (I can't afford any amount or any type of vintage brandy).

2: "I can't afford a vintage brandy"
Implicitly refers to some particular amount, type, etc., but not a specific instance of it.

3: "I can't afford the vintage brandy"
Normally some specific instance, but dialectally (Irish, for example), may be the same as (1) or (2).

4: "I can't afford my vintage brandy"
Either the brandy I have now, or more likely the brandy I used to have (but now sorely miss).

5: "I can't afford your vintage brandy"
Either the brandy you have (to drink or to sell), or colloquially/dialectally equivalent to (1) or (2).

That last point (using your as a "generic" reference) may seem strange to non-native speakers. Note that when it occurs in speech, your is always unstressed (it's a neutral vowel, often written as "yer").
It's more common in speech than writing, but here's a real-world written example...

"This is not your typical Spanish village" (despite the typography, your is definitely not stressed)
Where your means an example of what anyone (i.e. - someone like you) might consider to be a...

  • Thanks, FumbleFingers! BTW, "Your" as a generic reference marker works fine in Russian, so no problem here. My ma used to say to the dad, "I'm sick of your herbs (твоих трав)", meaning the medicinal botany in general, which had been his hobby for a time. – CowperKettle Jul 30 '13 at 13:20

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