E-flagship is scaled down

October 5, 2001

The e-university has slipped further behind schedule and conceded its launch next year will be small-scale.

The delay comes after the e-university - announced by then education secretary David Blunkett in his Greenwich speech in February 2000 - got bogged down in negotiations with Sun Microsystems, which is supposed to become its main commercial partner.

The private sector is expected to provide half the set-up costs, initially estimated at £200 million over two years. Nick Winton, interim chief executive of the e-university management team, declined to put a figure on the investment sought. However, he told Universities UK last month that "the sum of money to be invested is a considerable one".

It had been hoped that the commercial partner would be announced four months ago. The project had already been delayed by a complete rethink of its membership, which was switched from a core of six or seven universities to a model in which almost every institution was a member.

It also remains to be seen how the e-university will fare under the new chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Sir Howard Newby. His predecessor, Sir Brian Fender, was an avid supporter.

Mr Winton said that he would be taking "a proposition" to a meeting next week with Hefce. A spokesman for Sun Microsystems said that the company was still in negotiations.

The first students are due to enrol with the e-university next year. It will carry the brand name UK e-Universities Worldwide.

A briefing paper prepared by Mr Winton states that when it came to marketing the e-university, "it would be wasteful to generate awareness and build expectations when there was little possibility to satisfy it".

Any marketing should be for individual courses rather than for the e-university itself as "initially, there will only be a limited number of available programmes in 2002".

Scottish Knowledge, which offers distance learning on behalf of Scottish universities and colleges, has been touted as a second partner for the e-university.

The briefing paper states: "(Scottish Knowledge's) experience will be used to advise the e-university on the development of the marketing function. Their incorporation into the e-university would also result in the availability of an existing contact base, a revenue stream from existing distance learning activities and a range of skills and experience that would accelerate the sales of the new e-university."

However, the e-university would have to operate for profit, since Scottish Knowledge has more than 20 corporate shareholders, including News International, which publishes The THES .

The BBC is also expected to become involved in the e-university once commercial contracts have been completed.

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