Universities in Australia, Canada and New Zealand are hoping to achieve "a quantum shift" in open educational resources (OERs) by launching an "OER university".
A group of universities plans to draw together existing free online learning materials from around the world and develop new OERs to create whole degree programmes that can be studied via the internet for free.
The project will focus on how to offer students using OERs the opportunity to earn academic credit and have their work assessed at a significantly reduced cost.
It is hoped that these degrees could cost up to 90 per cent less than a traditional qualification gained through on-campus study.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Wayne Mackintosh, director of the Open Education Resource Foundation, said an OER university would help widen access to higher education in the developing world as well as helping students in the developed world faced with rising tuition fees.
"Throughout most Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the costs of education have been increasing in excess of the inflation index," he said. "What we're aiming to do is provide alternatives...the opportunity to get the same quality of education for significantly lower cost."
The project brings together the OER Foundation, the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, Athabasca University in Canada and Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand.
Education leaders from around the world are being invited to take part in an online meeting about the plans on 23 February, supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Dr Mackintosh, who founded WikiEducator, an online project for the collaborative development of learning materials, explained that the universities would work together to develop learning materials under open content licences.
The universities will use existing materials, as well as producing new OERs themselves to fill the gaps and create coherent courses.
"If we get this right," Dr Mackintosh said, an OER university degree could be "10-15 per cent" of the cost of a traditional degree.
He said the system could run alongside traditional modes of delivery. "There is no research evidence to justify the argument that institutions lose their competitive advantage by opening up their course materials."
The proposal is not about "dismantling" the existing university system but rather "augmenting and adding value to" existing provision.
He envisages the OER university developing into a "parallel" university system that could also give traditional students more flexibility.
Dr Mackintosh said it was "just a question of time" before other universities joined the scheme.
"OER is a sustainable and a renewable resource...It is up to universities to see the opportunities and live out their vocations. Why should taxpayers have to pay twice for learning materials? We are publicly funded institutions," he said.
Universities that are "not sure where this is all going" are "free to watch and see what happens", he said, "but we're doing this and nobody is going to stop us". "When we look back, I wonder whether we are going to ask why it took so long," Dr Mackintosh added.