Newly released papers reveal ministers' doubts over flagship policies launched five years ago
Exactly five years ago this Tuesday morning, one steeply tiered lecture theatre at Greenwich University was packed to the rafters with journalists, academics and vice-chancellors who, like a class of suited and booted mature students, waited eagerly to hear David Blunkett set out his vision for higher education.
They were to hear Mr Blunkett, who was then Education Secretary, unveil two flagship initiatives, the UK e-University and two-year foundation degrees.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Pounds 62 million UKeU project was dogged by concerns long before it was wound up last year, having attracted just 900 students worldwide.
The papers also show frank assessments of the limited progress made so far on foundation degrees, the courses intended to help widen access to higher education.
This month, MPs will deliver a damning report on the UKeU debacle; but in 2000 Mr Blunkett hailed it as "the flag carrier" that would deliver online degrees from UK universities.
As early as January 2002, a progress report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to the Department for Education and Skills refers to "lengthy and tortuous" negotiations with Sun Microsystems, which agreed to supply the electronic delivery platform for UKeU courses. By March 2002, Margaret Hodge, then Higher Education Minister, was questioning Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of UKeU Worldwide, about the long-term viability of the project.
Seven months later, in October 2002, John Beaumont, chief executive of UKeU Worldwide, warned Ms Hodge that there was "considerable concern" about student numbers falling below projections.
The note also reflects concerns that the original 50-50 public-private funding partnership split might not happen since the dot-com bubble had burst.
A Hefce briefing paper, dated March 2003, reveals more serious concerns:
"The capital markets remain depressed and this presents a significant future challenge to the set-up of the venture."
By May 6, when Ms Hodge met Hefce officials and Sir Anthony and Mr Beaumont, things were unravelling fast.
A note of the meeting reveals that the financial markets would not touch the project until proof of concept had been obtained. The document says:
"It was asked specifically at what point we would know that we should pull out. Sir Anthony Cleaver suggested that this would not be until student numbers stall, with no prospect of reaching profitability."
In fact, things never came to that as the plug was pulled in April 2004.
Mr Blunkett's other brainchild, foundation degrees, meanwhile experienced early recruitment problems.
Papers from the DFES confirm that of 26 institutions given money to provide new places for foundation-degree students in 2001-02, 18 under-recruited.
Recruitment improved over the next two years so that, according to the latest available figures for 2003-04, there are now some 25,000 students studying foundation degrees, broadly half full time and half part time.
Some claim this is still too few and want the Government to fund a far higher rate of growth.
David Robertson, who headed the group charged with designing foundation degrees in 2001, is preparing a national evaluation of foundation degrees for Hefce.
He said: "They are doing OK but they have hardly set the heather alight.
Ideally you would be looking at 100,000 to 120,000 people a year doing them."
According to an analysis carried out on behalf of the DFES by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 90 per cent of those taking part-time foundation degrees were aged 25 or over in 2001-02.
Leslie Wagner, chairman of the Foundation Degree Task Force which reported last September, agreed that the part-time route had been more successful in attracting new students. But he said there were concerns over full-time foundation degrees due partly to them competing more directly with full-time degrees.
He said: "The honours degree is such a major brand, so for another brand such as the foundation degree to come in and market itself successfully to the customer as an alternative will take some time."