UK sets out to create a globally competitive e-University

A British online university to serve the global student market is to be developed under proposals from the Higher Education Funding Council for England ( HEFCE) in February. The primary aim of the e-university (e-U) will be to develop and administer a repertoire of courses suited to distance learning, with pilot courses projected to commence during the 2001-02 academic year. But the e-U will also offer electronic access to a library and learning resources, tutoring service, administer student recruitment and support services (for example, pastoral and financial), conduct student assessment, and award qualifications. These virtual activities will be administered by a small central set up, with course materials provided by participating existing universities.

A report on the proposal commissioned by the HEFCE from consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers suggested that the students attending the e-U will be different from those who might enrol on a physical campus. For example, corporations may invest in e-U course materials in order to train their own management. Or students from abroad may be interested in course material as part of their postgraduate or vocational degrees. Ron Cooke, chair of the e-U steering committee, explains that "the e-U will focus primarily on the postgraduate and CPD [continuing professional development] market." Therefore, it is likely that course content will be partially driven by the needs of industry. However, "this does not rule out opportunities for students to study for nonvocational subjects," he urges. "Hopefully, a wide range of fields will be offered online," he adds, "but this will depend on the courses submitted by the participating universities."

How does this affect already overstretched lecturers in conventional British universities? Cooke claims that "there is no implication for existing lecturers to take part." Rather, he suggests, new jobs will be created "to develop the human resources to bring the online coursework to life. The only contributions necessary from existing lecturers will be their intellectual ability and subject-based knowledge." Julian Burnell of HEFCE says, "whether they are lecturing to a classroom or to a Web-cam should make little difference to [lecturers]." But because HEFCE envisages that universities will see benefits such as increased revenue from overseas and vocational enrolment, reduced costs, and the scope to extend existing programmes, the pressure could be on university staff to find time for e-U involvement.

Despite the potential benefits to students, universities, and industry, converting conventional campus courses into cyber-learning offerings will not be plain sailing. The e-U will employ a group of individuals skilled in converting university courses into interactive Web-based learning modules, though the number of jobs and the skill sets required have not yet been identified. And the e-U will have to cope with other quandaries too. It will be responsible for quality assurance, with a committee of esteemed academics from across the sector evaluating the proposed coursework. Its courses will have to be protected from the threat of plagiarism and theft. Students of the e-U will require the extensive resources of an online library comparable to that offered by any reputable learning institution, and such a library will have to overcome the problems of copyright infringement and intellectual property rights issues. Finally, because one of the key selling points of the e-U is an enhanced distance-learning student experience, it must provide the opportunities and resources for student communities to develop and thrive online in a similar manner to those that exist for students on a physical campus.

Already, in its short life, plans for the e-U have undergone fundamental changes. Initially envisaged as a partnership of elite universities, it will instead take a broader approach. Burnell believes "the key is inclusivity." The business model of the e-U allows for all British universities to participate, provided that they are of reputable quality, and to date more than 70 institutions have expressed an interest in the project. But some think this a mistake. Neil Gregory from the London School of Economics (LSE), which has stated openly that it is unlikely to participate in the e-U, believes that the open approach could "tarnish [the reputations of] the half-dozen or so elite universities." And despite initial enthusiasm on the part of its Vice Chancellor Colin Lucas, the University of Oxford appears to have turned its back on the e-U. It recently joined Princeton, Stanford, and Yale in a distance-learning partnership that will provide online courses in the arts and sciences.

Also uncertain is the e-U's financial future. No official figures have yet been published, though Philip Walker of HEFCE says that £14 million of government funding has already been secured for 2001-02. But Walker estimates an additional £75 million is needed for start-up, plus annual running costs of £40 million. These funds will be provided by a consortium of universities, private sector companies, and the government. The lack of specific costs and projected revenues is another stumbling block for Gregory. "How can LSE consider lending our brand without any draft numbers?" he asks.

Despite the pessimism, Burnell is upbeat. The e-U has the potential to evolve into "nothing we've seen before," he says. Not only will the education and skills gained through the e-U increase the job prospects and earning potential of its students, it also promises to create jobs for technically minded individuals.