Last month Alison Goddard looked at the threat to universities from increasing competition worldwide. In advance of the conference "Tomorrow's world: the globalisation of higher education", she examines what universities are doing about it
In March 1997, 18 vice-chancellors met in Melbourne, Australia, to discuss the threats presented by corporate universities and the internet. The vice-chancellors represented research-intensive urban universities from Australia, Canada, China, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. They agreed to form an international network, called Universitas 21, to respond to these 21st-century challenges.
"We are setting up a systematic student exchange in which students can transfer credits between universities," said Keith Jones, registrar at the University of Nottingham, a Universitas 21 member. "The first opportunity to take part will come next academic year, and eventually we expect to have hundreds of students from each member university taking part." Other proposals include staff exchanges and sharing information on good practice.
More interesting, Universitas 21 is considering whether to work with corporate universities. These institutions are established by commercial firms to educate and train their staff. For example, British Aerospace has a university that offers advanced degrees and business qualifications in collaboration with 79 universities and colleges, some of which are privately funded.
"Traditional universities have to find ways of working with new partners," Mr Jones said. "We need to be alive to the opportunity of working with major corporate providers."
A second approach is to provide distance-learning courses via international partnerships. More than 100,000 overseas students in 69 countries are enrolled on distance-learning courses at 84 UK universities, according to a recent survey by Paul Bennell, an independent consultant formerly at the University of Sussex.
A quarter of these are with the Open University. Three broad subject areas predominate among undergraduate courses: business, computing and accountancy. At the postgraduate level, management courses and, in particular, MBA courses, accounted for more than two-thirds of all enrolments.
The total income to UK universities from these students is about Pounds 250 million, Dr Bennell estimates.
Last month the Open University teamed up with Western Governors University to provide such courses in the US. WGU already offers distance-learning diplomas and degrees that are accredited by various colleges and universities in western states of the US. Under the new alliance, called the Governors Open University System, students work towards these qualifications plus those offered by the Open University's US branch, which will soon have US accreditation.
Meanwhile, other universities are offering internet-based courses to students in the UK and overseas. Such courses are popular because students can learn when it suits them, and many universities offer continuing professional development courses to students in full-time jobs. Birkbeck College, London, for example, offers postgraduate qualifications in protein crystallography, geographic information systems, organisational psychology and computer applications for the history of art, all via the internet. These courses have grown naturally from campus teaching, said Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College: "We are using computers anyway, so it was straightforward to offer courses at a distance."
On the protein crystallography course, students can manipulate simulated molecules electronically using their computers. There is an electronic space called the BIOMOO where students can study protein crystal structures and discuss them with other students. Tutorials are held in this electronic space at different times to suit European and US students. "We are blurring the distinction between synchronous teaching and asynchronous use," Professor O'Shea said.
Even the University of Oxford is introducing distance-learning courses. It has 160 students enrolled on a modular degree course in computing that is due to start next month; the course is taught almost entirely on the internet but it also includes two one-week summer schools and a traditional exam. Half the students are resident in the UK, but the other half are scattered across the world.
Another internet course, starting in March, leads to a diploma in local history, while a third, beginning in April, is a professional update in immunology.
"If you are the key provider in a field, it is important to stay at the front, and that means online," said Oxford's Jonathan Darby. "We are very much into extending access to learning at Oxford."
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has commissioned a study on the threat presented by overseas institutions offering courses via the internet.
After the study, a collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, is completed at the end of next year, the CVCP will devise a strategy to inform universities.