Meet the lean, flexible facilitator

October 13, 2000

The e-university will help UK institutions to go global and be the best. Ron Cooke explains how.

The e-university, as described by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in its proposed business model, is a chance for UK higher education to contribute to the rapidly growing global market for electronically based distance learning. With more than 40,000 courses available online, it is not before time.

Some universities are already seizing the opportunity. But many find the scale of investment required to compete effectively across the globe beyond their resources. So the e-university proposals are designed to help all universities seeking to promote quality e-courses. The e-university will not be a new, independent university with degree-awarding powers. Rather it will be a facilitator, working with a wide range of institutions to invest in developing programmes for e-delivery.

Among other things, it should help with market intelligence, global promotion, quality assurance filters, facilities for course development and delivery, technical assistance and student support. Initially, it is likely to focus on continuing professional development and postgraduate markets, where, at present, learning is most accepted.

We have tried to be inclusive in two ways: to include all UK higher education institutions and to include private capital and companies. We propose that the e-university should be a holding company wholly owned by UK higher education. It will work through an operating company, in which commercial partners are welcome. We expect initial financial support from public funds. And we expect the organisation to become financially self-sustaining.

It is difficult to predict future markets, and part of the challenge is to create them. We have a reservoir of high-quality research and teaching experience. We have substantial commitments to distance learning. We have an excellent command of innovative technologies. And we work comfortably in the preferred global language, English.

But the global market already includes significant players. If we do not now accept the challenge to participate, with the appropriate levels of investment and with strong controls on quality, we will not only miss an opportunity, we may also find that our existing, more conventional, markets will eventually be threatened.

We hope the e-university will provide access to excellent courses for many who might otherwise not be able to benefit from higher education and that the national economy will gain a world-recognised brand.

Ron Cooke is vice-chancellor, University of York, and chair of the Hefce steering group that has overseen the development of the e-university proposals.

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