Now it feels it can no longer remain aloof from the technological change sweeping the globe and threatening the nature of higher education. The LSE believes the alliance will let the school expand - and do so with other high quality institutions. The US universities are Columbia in New York, University of Chicago, Stanford in California and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. "We regard it as a necessary defensive measure by the LSE," says Neil Gregory, head of research and contracts. "If we don't get involved, others will. It's an interesting alternative means of delivering education."
The universities have gone into business with Unext.com, an US Internet education firm. So far three courses are being developed - accounting from Columbia, finance from Chicago, business writing, also from Chicago: a fourth, business in Europe, is being prepared with the LSE. These should be up and running in January 2000. One customer has already signed up - IBM. But the organisers expect to recruit other big firms: students will be their employees. In a couple of years the courses will build up into an MBA.
Stephen Hill, pro-director of the LSE and a member of Unext's academic advisory board, adds: "As professional educators we have got to be in this area. We'll develop new ways of teaching and learning that'll be important to our own students. Who knows what a university will look like in 20 years time? Whatever it will be, the LSE will be there."
The price will be a little below that charged by good US business schools. Most elite American MBAs charge more than $25,000 (pounds 15,000 plus) just for tuition, so the new Internet MBA could sit uneasily with the LSE's mission to educate regardless of the ability to pay - though Gregory says it hopes to make enough money out of the venture to take any qualified student.
Developing distance learning on the Net is expensive, says Don Norman, president of Unext Learning Systems (ULS), as students need plenty of support if they're learning on their own in front of a computer. The Open University MBA is the closest to the new courses from Cardean, the new online business education community set up by Unext.com and named after the Roman goddess, who, said Ovid, could "open what is shut, and shut what is open".
Edwin Eisendrath, senior vice president of ULS, believes many students won't want a full MBA, but will need some courses for their jobs. They won't have time to go to a conventional university. If they go on to a MBA they will get a Cardean qualification.
Ian Turner, director of graduate business studies at Henley, Management School says there are substantial numbers of Internet MBAs in the US, "but the LSE and its collaborators may yet surprise us all".
n Cardean: www.unext.com