UKeU chief hits back

July 23, 2004

The former chairman and chief executive of the failed UK e-university robustly defended its records at a House of Commons Education Select Committee hearing this week.

John Beaumont, the former chief executive of UKeU, told MPs that the progress made before the Higher Education Funding Council for England pulled the plug this year was a "massive achievement".

Sir Anthony Cleaver, the former chairman, said the venture would have been successful had it been given more time. He added that Hefce had not been aware that UKeU had been about to launch two new courses of the type it needed to attract more enrolments when the decision was taken to axe the scheme.

MPs are investigating the failed venture after Hefce's decision to terminate the £62 million project last February.

Sir Anthony, former chairman and chief executive of IBM UK, said he did not believe that ministers or Department for Education and Skills officials had put pressure on the council to close the e-university.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, had told him last year that he hoped the venture was getting the support it needed.

Mr Beaumont, a former academic at Stirling and Bath universities, left most of the talking to the chairman. He told MPs that the e-learning platform, which had cost millions to develop, was unlikely to be reused.

"I would be surprised if it is be possible to use it widely and sadly that asset will be lost," he said. Some £2 million a year would be needed to keep it running.

Sir Anthony defended the decision to commission Sun Microsystems to develop a platform from scratch, saying it was essential to have one that could perform functions such as enrolling students online and accepting credit card payments.

Asked if the business plan had been unrealistic, he said ambitious targets were vital in the attempt to ensure that UK higher education got a foothold in markets where countries such as the US and Australia were also seeking students.

When MPs queried the marketing efforts to promote the venture, Sir Anthony admitted that no one of the appropriate calibre and experience to warrant appointment to the board had initially been found.

"It would have strengthened our position, and we were looking for such a person," he said.

Sir Anthony had "absolutely no qualms" about the bonuses paid to him, Mr Beaumont and other senior staff, and said they were awarded for achieving targets such as appointing competent agents in various markets.

The payments had been detailed in the annual report sent to universities, he added.

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