Unions object to online scheme

March 2, 2001

The heads of five academic unions have called for a moratorium on Universitas 21's plans to develop online courses.

The general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, David Triesman, was among the five officials from the American Association of University Professors, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and Australia's National Tertiary Education Union who met to discuss the plan by the global network of universities.

The officials wrote to Universitas 21 chairman Alan Gilbert, in Melbourne, calling for the moratorium. Their key concern was a proposed agreement to contract out online course design, content development and testing and assessment to Thompson Learning.

Core academic tasks should remain with the faculty and not be given over to the control of a for-profit education company, the union leaders said. The information available suggested that the arrangement with Thompson Learning was potentially inconsistent with these roles.

The Universitas 21 students network has also questioned its strategic directions. After a meeting of representatives from Britain, Australia, Holland, Singapore and New Zealand in Hong Kong last month, the students network issued a statement that said it wanted to ensure the academic integrity of any proposed online university.

The students' statement said the proposal to produce online courses could risk the reputation of the member institutions, their students and their alumni.

Members of due diligence committees from the 18 Universitas 21 institutions met in San Francisco in January to receive a briefing and to consider if the network should continue with the project and under what conditions.

A full meeting of the group is scheduled to take place in Michigan in May. But, before then, the unions want to clarify issues of governance, intellectual freedom, quality assurance, intellectual property and financial arrangements surrounding the proposal. Their letter said the network must address academic and employment issues.

"To date, neither Universitas 21 nor the member universities have provided their communities, via their academic boards, or the relevant staff and student unions, with information that would enable questions to be answered," the union leaders stated.

"We are deeply concerned at the failure to include representatives of staff and students in the forthcoming academic and financial due diligence processes."

Chris Robinson, the Managing director of Universitas 21, said the correspondence from the unions and the students network was being considered. He said negotiations were continuing with Thompson Learning after the discussions in San Francisco.

Thompson Learning is an American division of the Thompson Corporation, which specialises in the electronic delivery of information.

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