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Friday, 13 October, 2000, 23:44 GMT 00:44 UK
Blueprint for new online university
student reading book
The "e-U" could also enhance campus studies
The UK's proposed e-University has moved a step closer with the publication of an outline of how it should operate, with an emphasis on innovation.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) says it will be a "dynamic new way of delivering high quality higher education to students via the internet".

The aim of the project, announced in February by the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, is to make the UK a leading player in the booming market for "virtual" learning over the web.

It will be a portal - not devising content itself, but acting as a broker for any UK higher education institution to deliver courses and student services, provided they meet quality thresholds.

It will be aimed at individuals, companies and public organisations, at home and overseas.

'Exciting prospect'

Professor Ron Cooke, the vice-chancellor of the University of York, who chairs the e-University steering group, said: "The e-University will allow us to harness the massive potential of UK higher education so that we meet the growing global demand for electronically-based distance learning.

"The project offers inclusive and exciting opportunities for higher education institutions, through ownership of the e-University holding company, and by providing course materials and services."

A number of universities already offer courses online, either alone or in collaboration with other institutions in the UK or abroad, especially in the United States.

"At present, too much of that development work is under-capitalised and too small in scale," Professor Cooke said.

"The e-University offers a way of harnessing that energy and expertise in a way that all can benefit from."

Proposed key features of the e-University:

  • student-orientated - with modules and services tailored to students' needs
  • high quality - offering the best online programmes with quality thresholds for all its materials, tools and services
  • innovative - working with leading partners from the private sector and acting as a source of expertise for UK universities and colleges
  • flexible - to keep pace with the net's changes and evolving learning requirements
  • cost-effective - using public and private funding and economies of scale to provide the investment needed to develop the learning materials and supply them globally
The business model envisages that the e-University will have a holding company owned collectively by the UK's higher education sector, operating in partnership with the private sector.

Standards will be overseen by a committee of academic experts.

Fees and income

It will charge customers fees and keep some of that income to offset its costs.

Part of the reasoning behind the scheme was a fear of being left behind in the global game.

A report by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers said: "The markets most under threat, from a UK perspective, are often those overseas ones which produce income surpluses for universities.

"University funding in the UK is now such that many would find it difficult to conceive of returning to a reliance on traditional home students without the income from overseas markets."

Hefce's chief executive, Sir Brian Fender, said it offered "a unique chance to lead the development of electronic learning".

"We start from an excellent base. We have world-class technology infrastructure, outstanding skills in our universities and colleges, and some global technology-related companies to collaborate with.

"The potential market for e-learning is large and growing, at home and overseas, particularly in the postgraduate, continuing professional development, and lifelong learning areas."

Campus-based learning would remain central for many students, he said.

"But through innovative use of technology, coupled with a commitment to the highest academic standards, the e-University project will enable us to reach out to new groups of students while also enriching the delivery of higher education across the board."

Hefce and other UK funding councils will consider a detailed implementation plan later in the year.

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See also:

15 Feb 00 | Education
Universities told to catch the e-wave
22 Dec 99 | Education
US colleges move courses online
03 Apr 00 | Education
Online knowledge alliance
15 Aug 00 | Education
Adult online learning 'first'
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