To succeed, the e-U must ignore technomania, ensure high-quality provision and encourage the best possible terms and conditions for staff, argues Rob Copeland.
Plans for a UK e-University (e-U) continue to gather pace, with £62 million of government funding allocated over the next three years. The business model, published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in October 2000, proposes that the e-U support UK universities and other partners in the development and delivery of online programmes and services.
In the past few months, members of the university-owned holding company and the academic quality committee have been appointed. These are the core bodies that will guarantee the quality and standards of the e-U brand. Details of the operating company (the body that will run the e-U on a day-to-day basis) have yet to be specified as Hefce is still negotiating with suitable private-sector partners.
These initial proposals have been generally well received by the higher education sector. Most welcome the fact that all institutions are given the opportunity to participate in the scheme. Others question whether an inclusive model offers sufficient "brand differentiation" in a global higher education market. Some institutions may prefer to concentrate on their own plans for international online collaborations, such as the four UK universities involved in the Universitas 21 scheme with Thomson Learning.
It is also too early to predict student demand for the e-U, but the first programmes will be offered in continuing professional development and postgraduate areas such as business and nursing. Initial overseas marketing will focus on about eight countries with a close association with UK higher education. The plan is to launch these programmes in 2002.
Unfortunately, debates around the e-U have been conducted without a serious discussion of the effectiveness of distance learning. Research on virtual learning is still in its infancy, and much of it is inconclusive. For example, most studies suggest that student learning and satisfaction are affected less by technology and more by "traditional" factors such as student motivation. Research also shows that information and communications technology cannot simply replace the human element in higher education.
Despite this, the e-U prospectus claims that most distance education can be provided purely by electronic means. Face-to-face tutorial support is dismissed as "expensive and difficult to provide", and direct peer-group interaction is seen as unnecessary with the advent of "chat rooms and bulletin boards". This technomania is inappropriate. UK universities are a long way off from "simulating" a genuine higher education experience via digital channels. Hefce's own research shows that most universities do not yet possess e-learning programmes of sufficient quality to be part of a 2002 launch.
Before next year, the e-U steering group should look closely at the Open University's successful model of distance education. Apart from using new technology, the OU's programmes are underpinned by meaningful interaction between students and staff, and adequate access to libraries, labs and other high-quality learning materials. Similar resources need to be provided by the first wave of e-U distance programmes. Effective distance learning will not happen unless students and staff receive proper training in the use of technology. At the moment, computer-mediated learning is confined largely to enthusiasts for new media. If online provision is to become a key element in universities of the future, employers will need to provide a major programme of staff development and training. Their record in this area is far from promising. Perhaps the time has come for the government to intervene and make staff development programmes central in future funding arrangements.
There is also the thorny issue of measuring and assuring the quality of online provision. A number of virtual programmes have thrown up major quality concerns (the American Association of University Professors has been heavily critical of wholly virtual institutions, such as Jones International University). To prevent similar criticisms being levelled at the e-U, a critical role will need to be played by its academic quality committee. Comprising members from a range of higher education institutions, this committee is responsible for drafting specifications for the quality and standards required for e-learning programmes. It is due to report in the summer of 2001. Where possible, the committee should develop procedures of equal rigour to those of traditional forms of higher education. Protection against fraud and abuse will be particularly important in guaranteeing the credibility of e-U qualifications with employers.
Quality assurance and staff development are central issues in guaranteeing the long-term success of the venture. Staff also need to be alert to possible impacts on their own terms and conditions. Intellectual property rights is a key area for negotiation. Initial statements that new material commissioned by the e-U will entitle the operating company to full royalties will alarm those staff involved in the production of online materials. Hefce's establishment of a task force to identify best institutional practice in intellectual property rights procedures is an attempt to allay these concerns. Ideally, the materials created by staff online courses should be treated in the same way as materials created for traditional courses.
The viability of the e-U depends upon private-sector funding and participation. In the long term, there is the possibility of commercial companies offering online programmes in competition with universities. Whatever the eventual level of "commercialisation", virtual providers are likely to employ staff in much more flexible ways than traditional ones. For example, the e-U business model raises the possibility of a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week technical support service. Will universities seek to introduce this call-centre type arrangement?
Higher education is already one of the most casualised employment sectors. Forty-two per cent of academic staff are on a fixed-term contract, and there are an estimated 30,000 casual hourly paid staff carrying out academic and related roles in UK higher education. Online provision could lead to more increases in the proportion of hourly paid or part-time staff. The University of Phoenix - a particularly muscular exponent of online education in the United States - is wholly dependent on a casual workforce.
Casualised work environments can have negative implications for the quality of the student experience as well as for staff terms and conditions. The major problem of recruiting and retaining IT staff in universities will need to be addressed if virtual materials are to be provided on a permanent basis. A recent report commissioned by Universities UK and Hefce raised the possibility of "market-oriented salaries" to attract such workers. If these speculative developments become reality, they will have big implications for industrial relations in higher education. They will require proper negotiation with recognised unions, particularly as some online initiatives have sought to bypass staff (and student) representatives.
If the e-U is to become a success, it needs to encourage institutions to provide the best possible terms and conditions for academic and related staff. In turn, this will help to guarantee a quality learning experience for its students.
Rob Copeland is a research officer with the Association of University Teachers.