To be 'e' or not to be 'e'?

February 25, 2000

The first students to enrol at Britain's new e-university will probably be using traditional distance-learning materials, the funding council has said.

The e-university was launched last week by education secretary David Blunkett as a virtual institution delivering online courses. However, British universities will not be able to move fast enough to offer entirely online programmes by the time the first students arrive.

Alice Frost, project manager for the e-university at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "There is a lot of hype. Very often, online provision is adjunct to other forms of study.

"We will start with a vision where online provision is one component of delivery. We are setting a trajectory for when courses will be online, for example by specifying that 50 per cent of courses should be online by a certain date."

The first meeting of the steering group for the e-university, held last week, confirmed that membership would be restricted to a select few in the first instance.

"Everybody thinks the e-university is a great idea and everybody wants to get involved. But we have to move fast and that means travelling light," said Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College and provost of Gresham College, who sits on the group.

Many universities that would like to become involved could be disappointed. However, the bidding process could act as a catalyst for a series of e-universities, which would be free from the constraints imposed by the funding council.

"Money always comes with strings. If we were not successful, we would try to create an e-university anyway," said Roy Leitch, assistant principal for learning strategies at Heriot Watt University, which has twice as many students enrolled on distance-learning courses as on campus.

The funding council envisages the e-university consisting of a core of three to five universities plus one or two private sector institutions.

FT Knowledge, a subsidiary of the Pearson publishing group, expressed interest in becoming a partner in it. "We know how to teach students in Asia, in Europe and in America," said Pippa Wicks, managing director of FT Knowledge.

The company recently ann-ounced partnerships with Regents College and the University of Michigan.

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