Universitas 21, the global network of research universities, is expected to announce next week that it has established formal links with at least one international corporation to provide higher education courses over the internet.
A meeting of the heads of the 18 member universities in Shanghai late last month decided to push ahead with the scheme. News International is believed to have made a presentation at the meeting. Other giant corporations interested in forming partnerships with the network include IBM, Microsoft, CNN and the Disney company.
The multinationals are presumably motivated by the likely explosive growth in higher education - student numbers are predicted to double to 160 million within 25 years - and the development of interactive education via the worldwide web.
Universitas 21 was initiated nearly three years ago and now has members in eight countries, including two leading universities in China and one in Hong Kong. It was incorporated as a company in Britain last year.
Universitas 21 members hope to provide an elite "brand" of education to multinational corporations that want to offer staff "portable career-enhancing education".
While Universitas 21's Chinese connections are no doubt a big attraction for News International, the company could be even more attractive to the group because of its worldwide satellite network and the capacity of the satellites to deliver interactive education. James McManus, managing director of WorldWide Learning, a subsidiary of TSL Education (publisher of The THES), confirmed talks had taken place but declined to comment further.
Prior to the meeting, managing director of Universitas 21 Chris Robinson said there were 1,600 corporate universities in Britain and America and that this was a major growth area.
"Universitas 21 can offer the services to run a university, admit students, provide education and training, credit outcomes and provide a brand name with international substance," he said.
Technology transfer, commercialisation of patents, and staff training and recruitment were other areas likely to be sought after by big companies.