Alan Gilbert, Universitas 21 chairman and vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, arrives in London today for three weeks of "intensive negotiations" to turn the memorandum of understanding signed with News Corporation last month into a joint venture company structure.
Professor Gilbert said he hoped the new company would be established by September and would be offering its first courses by mid-2001. This would mean the "revenue stream" would begin flowing back to the U21 members as soon as the first student signed up for a course.
"Universitas 21 is investing major intellectual property in the partnership," he said. "What we are offering is the U21 brand, which derives from the multi-jurisdictional authority and legitimacy of the various member institutions."
Each of the U21 universities would continue to run its own campus-based and distance education or online courses but none of these programmes would be offered by the joint venture company. Instead, the company would tender and pay for "brand-new, custom-designed e-education programmes".
"We don't think the individual campus brands or the old-fashioned forms of pedagogy and their adaptation to distance education from face-to-face teaching is the way e-education will go," Professor Gilbert said.
"Nor do we think the individual university brand is any longer the most potent in the global market."
News Corporation, parent company of TSL Education Ltd, which publishes The THES, officially announced its involvement in the joint venture on Tuesday.
The venture will be steered by TSL Education and the commercial arm of U21, whose 18-institution network spans ten countries and has a combined operating budget of $10 billion (Pounds 6.3 billion).
The new company will focus on providing "premium higher education programmes" with global reach, leading directly or indirectly to a degree or diploma. U21 is working to secure international professional accreditation and portability for core curricula in key areas.
The venture will harness the global quality assurance structure provided by U21, whose network employs some 44,000 academics and researchers, with a student enrolment of about 500,000.
Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, said:
"News Corporation has taken a strategic decision to enter the distance-learning market, using our global distribution platforms, our advanced technologies and our marketing reach. A mutually profitable partnership between leading providers in higher education and one of the world's leading media companies is a very strong proposition."
James MacManus, chief executive of TSL Education, said: "This partnership with Universitas 21 offers huge potential in the global market for higher education, and we intend to develop it vigorously."
Mr MacManus emphasised that the deal did not diminish TSL Education's existing relationship with Scottish Knowledge, the 21-institution partnership that signed a distance-learning deal in February with Worldwide Learning Limited, a subsidiary of TSL Education.
"We intend to help that company grow to its full potential, just as we will work hard to realise the very different aims of Universitas 21. The two companies are pursuing very different models of distance learning, and we aim to work with both in what is a rapidly evolving marketplace," he said.
Other giant corporations interested in forming partnerships with the network include IBM, Microsoft, CNN and the Disney Company. The companies would bring unique content archive and creation assets to the table together with ground-breaking technology, particularly Microsoft's next-generation gaming and internet access device, X-Box.