Global e-university yetto get off the ground

February 7, 2003

An ambitious joint venture between universities from four continents has had teething problems. Geoff Maslen reports from Melbourne

Nearly 18 months after its announcement as the "world's premier online university", U21global has still not embarked on its first courses.

U21global was set up in October 2001 as a joint venture between Universitas 21, a consortium of 18 universities in eight countries, and Thomson Learning, part of Canada's giant Thomson Corporation. A month after the venture was announced in Singapore, where it is headquartered, U21global appointed Mukesh Aghi, a former senior vice-president with Thomson Learning, as its first chief executive. Aghi says the first course to be offered this year will be an MBA, followed by a masters in information systems.

Universitas 21 was initiated by the former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert in 1997 as a way of aiding the exchange of staff and students among the world's research-intensive institutions. The consortium also plans to tap into what is supposedly a multibillion-dollar market of untapped demand for higher education - with 32 million potential students.

Two years ago, Gilbert said that the first students in U21global would be studying online before the end of 2001 and that by 2011 there would be 500,000 students enrolled, while Melbourne alone would be earning $40 million (£25 million) a year from the sale of courses.

Gilbert spent six months in London trying to negotiate a deal with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, parent company of The THES , but failed to achieve a resolution. He then initiated discussions with Thomson Learning.

In September 2001, after nearly nine months of negotiations, 15 member universities of Universitas 21 agreed to put in $25 million to establish the virtual university, with Thomson Learning also committing $25 million.

The British members of Universitas 21 are the universities of Birmingham, Glasgow and Nottingham, while the three Australian institutions are Melbourne, New South Wales and Queensland. Other participants include the Canadian universities of British Columbia and McGill, the University of Virginia in the US and the universities of Fudan, Hong Kong and Singapore in Asia.

The e-university project has generated concern among some Universitas 21 members, as well as among academic and student groups. Three of the network's original 18 members have opted out and others appear reluctant to commit money.

The University of Toronto, one of the first members of Universitas 21, resigned from the group, while the universities of Michigan, Peking and Edinburgh declined to join U21global but retained their membership. This was because of the cost of participating in the project and the use of Universitas 21 names and logos by the online university when issuing awards.

A group of five academic unions from the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand called for a halt to the e-university in February 2001 until all academic and employment issues had been resolved. But the consortium has pushed ahead and, in a press release announcing Aghi's appointment, Thomson Learning executive Bob Cullen said the initial strategic focus would be in Asia, with China expected to be the biggest market.

Cullen said that, with its world headquarters in Singapore, U21global would strengthen the city-state's position as an e-learning hub. Innovative courseware and the technology platforms would be developed and delivered worldwide from the headquarters while drawing on the expertise of the university members and Thomson Corporation.

www.universitas.edu.au

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