The global network of higher education institutions, Universitas 21, is negotiating partnerships with at least five international corporations over its plan to run courses over the internet.
Rupert Murdoch's News International, publisher of The Times Higher Education Supplement, is one of the companies involved. News International recently established a London-based subsidiary, WorldWide Learning, to provide programmes via the worldwide web for higher education institutions wishing to enter the distance-learning market.
The 18-member Universitas 21 includes four British universities (Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Nottingham) and others from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Singapore and China. To meet corporate wishes for dealing with a single entity, the network has become a limited company registered in Britain. Each university has equal equity.
Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, initiated the network in 1997. He hopes to take the partnership proposals to a Universitas 21 meeting in Shanghai next April.
"We are talking to multinational corporations about arrangements in which U21 adds value to the strategies such corporations are developing," Professor Gilbert said. "There may be a role for U21, and perhaps a major role, in providing education content as part of a global education partnership."
Several corporations that have put money into education as a core or peripheral business have expressed interest in the network, such as "the Disneys of the world", he said, as have several big manufacturing corporations.
"It's the Microsofts, the IBMs, the News Corps, the Ted Turner type vision of what's possible," Professor Gilbert said.
The network has the ability to produce reliable, cutting-edge higher education materials and courseware, he said. Its unique competitive advantage is in the different but related function of "branding and accreditation".
"Universitas 21 is an exercise in 'secondary branding', through which the centuries-old (in some cases) brand value of the individual partners is invested in an international, cross-jurisdictional brand signifying and symbolising a singular level of quality and quality assurance."
Professor Gilbert said the network was developing a capacity to support such a brand with a sophisticated quality-assurance capability.
Because partners are around the globe, it is able to achieve this "secondary branding" advantage without the problems associated with exporting cultural products such as education under "foreign brands".
The group is anxious to be first in the global market with a "formidable brand", Professor Gilbert said. That is why proposals for partnerships are being put to the membership in April.
Universitas 21 has been actively recruiting members among the world's elite universities. But others are pursuing bilateral agreements, including Cambridge, which last week announced a venture with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that they claimed would create a model for global higher education.
Professor Gilbert said there were serious doubts that an institution "so emphatically collegiate in structure" as Cambridge fitting into the coherent, robust network that Universitas 21 would have to become if it was fully to exploit the opportunities emerging around the world.
Mr Murdoch told The Australian last week he hoped WorldWide Learning would evolve into a major company.
"I think education is going to be a very big part of the internet," he said. Worldwide Learning will distribute content for university groups via satellite, the web and post.
James MacManus, managing director of WorldWide Learning, said: "This company has been established to take News Corporation into the distance-learning market using the company's global reach in marketing and distribution.
"Star TV's satellite platforms in Southeast Asia are just one example of how we can use News Corp's assets around the world to make the company a major player in the global education market."