The Commonwealth's small states - those with fewer than 1.5 million people - are to get a virtual university to help find solutions to their common problems.
Tiny populations, minuscule land area, generally low national incomes and isolation hamper their economic and social progress.
The Commonwealth has forced the problems of small states on to the world's agenda. Of 54 member states, which represent more than a quarter of humanity, 32 are small states and, of these, 25 are small island developing states.
A scheme to help them overcome poverty and isolation through a virtual university will be discussed by Commonwealth experts in Vancouver next month.
The threats they face range from vulnerability to natural disasters - for example, the Montserrat volcano eruption - to weak and undiversified economies open to the vagaries of trade liberalisation.
These challenges prompted Commonwealth education ministers to emerge from their 2000 conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a brief to develop the virtual university as a way of building small states' capacity to cope using existing structures.
Glen Farrell, former president of the Open Learning Agency in British Columbia, who has been hired by the Commonwealth of Learning to guide an expert working party, said the recommendations would be ready to present to the next meeting of Commonwealth education ministers in autumn 2003.
The first stage will be a draft "vision" document, which will be discussed with a wider audience including a panel of ministers.
The ministerial directive to use existing structures and capacity means it will be necessary to adopt solutions that transcend traditional ideas of what constitutes a university.
Dr Farrell's solution is to create a "virtual organisation". In this, teaching and learning could take place through alliances without the organisation being involved as a direct provider.
"The group needs to think not in terms of a 'university' in an institutional sense but in terms of functions that could be added to existing models, for example, the creation of content databases that could be shared, faculty development via virtual means, course material sharing and collaboration on programme and curriculum planning, and credit bank options," he said.
He thinks there will be no single solution for small states. Instead, regional groupings - the University of the West Indies, in the Caribbean, the University of the South Pacific covering 11 of the small Commonwealth states, and a grouping in sub-Saharan Africa - offer a more viable key.
The new university is unlikely to offer conventional degree-level training. It will concentrate on ways of enhancing the skills of people in strategic positions within small states.
The technical advisory committee, chaired by COL president Gajaraj Dhanarajan, will examine the use of information and communications technologies to enhance distance education, implement open-learning policies, make learning activities more flexible, and to enable distribution across a large number of learning venues.
The committee will include representatives from each region of the Commonwealth with concentrations of small states (Caribbean, South Pacific, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Africa).
The Virtual University for Small States will be of interest to groupings of small states outside the Commonwealth, where there is insufficient critical mass to build the skills required to engage with global markets.
Details: COL is a co-organiser of the World Education Market, which will be held in Lisbon, Portugal, from May 21-24.