Trainer fights for UKeU cash

July 2, 2004

A leading online training company stands to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds for learning materials it was contracted to produce for the failed UK e-University venture.

Doctors.net.uk, which won a £1 million contract to create a range of professional development resources for doctors, is likely to receive less than a sixth of the £625,000 it is still owed by UKeU. The venture is being wound up by higher education funding chiefs after failing to recruit enough students.

James Arnold-Baker, Doctors.net.uk's chairman and a former chief executive of Oxford University Press and BBC Enterprises (now BBC Worldwide), said that his company was to deliver the learning resources in four batches, with fees of £250,000 paid for each on delivery.

The firm was paid £250,000 for the first batch of resources last year. It then went ahead working to deliver the second batch in time for the e-university's planned launch this March in Hong Kong.

Mr Arnold-Baker said UKeU had paid half of the amount due for the second batch. He said that the firm had been attempting to extract the remaining Pounds 125,000 since April without success.

The company had also made preparations so that it could deliver the remaining two batches of learning materials worth £500,000. This had left the company with a total debt of £625,000, Mr Arnold-Baker told The Times Higher .

He said the e-university had been "very happy" with the quality of the materials, which had generated positive feedback from UKeU's marketing agents in the Far East.

Jonathan Elstein of eUniversities Worldwide Ltd recently told Mr Arnold-Baker that the company could expect to receive just 15p in the pound or even less.

Mr Arnold-Baker believed that the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which provided the £62 million allocated by the Government to the e-university venture, would fully compensate universities that had developed learning materials.

"It is giving preference to their own," Mr Arnold-Baker claimed.

Mr Arnold-Baker said Doctors.net.uk was waiting for a receiver to be appointed so it could launch legal action in an attempt to recoup as much money as possible. It had a turnover of about £2 million last year and the loss of so much income would force it to seek additional capital.

The company was set up in 1998 by Neil Bacon. More than 100,000 general practitioner doctors are registered users of the website, which provides accredited continuing medical education and professional news.

The operation's services are used by the Department of Health and agencies such as the National Health Service's National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Mr Arnold-Baker said negotiations were conducted with John Beaumont, chief executive of the e-university who resigned along with the UKeU board earlier this year when Hefce rejected a request for millions more in public funds to keep the venture afloat.

It is possible that the House of Commons Education Select Committee will seek to call Mr Beaumont and other senior UKeU managers as witnesses to its inquiry into the e-university's failure.

The committee last week grilled Sir Howard Newby, Hefce chief executive, and David Young, Hefce chairman, on whether the funding council should have kept a closer eye on the venture and intervened more quickly.

Thirty-one members of the UKeU staff were paid bonuses while running the doomed venture, MPs heard.

Hefce would not comment specifically about Doctors.net.uk and a spokesperson said: "The UKeU is not in receivership. Hefce is considering with the company the best avenues for winding down the venture, bearing in mind the best interest of students and other parties."

chris.johnston@thes.co.uk

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