Once upon a time universities fed, sheltered, taught and examined students and awarded them a degree or other credential before they left. No longer. Now there are universities which provide only one or two of these services, either avoiding the others entirely or "outsourcing" them to subcontractors.
A multi-author, global report on virtual education, commissioned by Commonwealth of Learning and funded by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, says that institutions are "unbundling many functions, such as the development and distribution of learning materials, tuition, assessment, registration and record-keeping, award-granting, learner support, and general administration." These functions, the report says, can now be shared through a wide variety of organisational arrangements involving both the public and private sectors.
Businesses have been doing this for years, paying specialists to do their computing, their marketing and even their manufacturing as they strip back to their "core competencies". For higher education institutions, information and communication technology is the force that is compelling them to concentrate on "niche learning needs" rather than offering a broad range of programmes.
The report warns that in the face of global competition from distance learning providers, institutions may find it difficult to use revenue from popular programmes to subsidise other programmes.
A growing phenomenon is the university that does no teaching. Western Governors University in the United States assesses students and awards credentials, but all its courses are delivered by pre-existing institutions. The United Kingdom's University for Industry is following a similar model.
Regents College in New York State bills itself as America's first virtual university. Since 1971 it has been awarding credits and degrees based on its evaluation of a student's prior learning including military or industrial training. Thanks to a partnership with Sylvan Technology Centers, Regents College exams are now available six days a week throughout the United States and in Canada, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan (Northern Mariana Island), and the Virgin Islands.
The report's editor Glenn Farrell says that "major socio-economic and geographical disparities exist" in access to the the technological infrastructure. "Those without access are likely to be increasingly disadvantaged in acquiring skills and knowledge." Dr Farrell has special praise for South Korea, where the ministry of education has a six-year (1997-2002) strategic plan for establishing infrastructure and encouraging the use of information and communication technology in education.
In February 1998, eight conventional universities and seven consortia of universities and private companies joined together to take part in a virtual university trial project initiated by the Korean government.
The government hopes that several private virtual universities will be set up after the trial ends in February 2000.
The Development of Virtual Education: A global perspective. ISBN 1 895369 74 6. www.col.org/virtualed