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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
'Shameful waste' on e-university
Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff

PC user
Only 900 students signed up
A Labour MP has condemned a failed online degree scheme as a "shameful waste" of tens of millions of pounds of public money.

Dr Ian Gibson, who chairs the science and technology committee at the Commons, called the UK's e-university "an absolute disaster".

The online university - called UKeU - was set up a year ago but failed to attract enough students.

The plug was pulled on it in February and it is being quietly dismantled.

The failure of the initiative is to be examined by a different Commons committee - the education select committee - later this month.

It does not mean that people are not studying for degrees online as the UKeU was just one strand of the growth in e-learning at universities. Many universities offer their own online courses.

Joint venture

The idea behind the UKeU was that it would be a broker, an agent for e-degrees, marketing online degrees from British universities and providing a technological platform to make them happen.

The body was set up last spring as a joint venture between the government, which put in 62m, 12 universities and private industry in the shape of the technology company which was to provide the software.

But it failed to attract the hundreds of thousands of students it had hoped to - just 900 had signed up by the time the plug was pulled on funding - and not many individual universities had joined the venture.

Privately, universities have said they wanted to see more investment in the marketing of their own degrees rather than a big investment in new technology.

People who burnt public money in what was a political enterprise should be censured
Dr Ian Gibson, Commons science and technology committee
Dr Ian Gibson, the chairman of the Commons science and technology committee, says money was wasted.

He told the You and Yours programme on BBC Radio Four: "It was a shameful waste of tens of millions of pounds, an absolute disaster.

"People who burnt public money in what was a political enterprise should be censured, and Hefce, which took over the enterprise rather late should explain what their role was in it."

Hefce - the Higher Education Funding Council for England - had been charged by the government to "embed e-learning" and to set up the UKeU.

It announced in February that it was planning to "restructure" the organisation and possibly transfer some of its activities.

It has emerged that Hefce sent consultants in to analyse the UKeU and they reported in December.

According to a leaked report, the consultants complained about a "lack of focus" in management and said marketing was being based "more on optimism than market-led judgements".

Sources say UKeU then asked Hefce for more funds.

Shortly afterwards, the funding body scrapped the UKeU in its present form.

It was right four years ago to take a strategic view of what might be a global development
Liz Beatty, Higher education funding council for England
Hefce has defended the initiative, saying that it began life four years ago, and that many things had changed since then.

Liz Beatty, Hefce's director of learning and teaching, told You and Yours: "We are quite pleased with the way we have handled things.

"The project was a risky enterprise but I think the sector and the country as a whole wouldn't be pleased if higher education wasn't investing in the future.

"This isn't the only investment in e-learning by any means.

"It was right four years ago to take a strategic view of what might be a global development but with hindsight it might not have been quite the right way for the company to take shape."

In a statement in February, Hefce said new arrangements for e-learning would "put a greater emphasis on public good rather than commercial objectives".

There would also be a greater emphasis on developing e-learning in universities and colleges.

44,000 per student

The failure of the UKeU will come under the scrutiny of the Commons education select committee later in June.

Its chairman, Barry Sheerman, told BBC News Online: "This seems to be a problem which almost replicates that of the Individual Learning Accounts of two years ago.

"It involves a substantial amount of public money. Only 900 students enrolled, putting the amount spent on each student at 44,000.

"It was set up at the time of the dotcom dream and in the private sector, dotcoms failed quickly.

"This, involving public sector money, took much longer."

He said there were probably lessons to be learned about the need to balance the desire for enterprise with providing value for money.

The Conservatives attacked the "incompetence of the Department for Education and Skills in implementing their initiatives".

"Yet again they have failed to move from eye-catching press release to effective action, and in the process have spent around 60m of taxpayers hard-earned money," said a spokesperson.

Problems at e-learning university
27 Feb 04  |  Education


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