The e-university: will it go the way of the Dome?

Initial hype about David Blunkett's cyber-university has given way to doubt. Critics are now asking whether students will sign up at all.
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When the United Kingdom announced its e-university plan in February this year, dot.com mania was at its height. But since then, the stock market has slid and doubts have set in about the e-U, as it is now called. People are even asking whether the e-U will go the way of the Dome.

When the United Kingdom announced its e-university plan in February this year, dot.com mania was at its height. But since then, the stock market has slid and doubts have set in about the e-U, as it is now called. People are even asking whether the e-U will go the way of the Dome.

Initially, there was lots of starry-eyed talk about the world's first national e-university. We would beam high-quality courses into cyberspace, sign up thousands of students from all over the globe and make pots of money for UK plc.

But now the critics are wondering whether it will become a monstrous white elephant, gobbling up taxpayers' money but not making any of its own, because people either don't know of its existence or are underwhelmed by it. And how will the e-U compete with all the rival alliances now being formed by individual universities around the world (see box right)?

Sir John Daniel, Vice-chancellor of the Open University, and an international expert on distance learning, is sceptical about whether the e-U will succeed. Does it makes sense to try to create a British university brand, he asks. In forming alliances, the top universities don't seem particularly attached to the idea of a UK brand, he points out. And will the private sector be prepared to invest £200m in the enterprise?

The concept of the e-U has changed. When Mr Blunkett revealed the hot new scheme in his famous Greenwich speech on higher education, he envisaged it as a prestige project run by a handful of Britain's top universities - a glamour consortium of the country's glitzy players. Oxford, Cambridge and London universities were on everyone's lips. The argument was that the big names were needed to attract worldwide custom. Its advocates argued that the only way to entice people to cross international boundaries was to have an indisputable brand name which could compete with Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Not surprisingly, that plan was resented by the rest of the university sector, which did not like being excluded from such a prestige project. When it went out for consultation it was panned. The result is a totally new scheme, which is inclusive rather than exclusive, and enables all universities to be involved. The holding company will be owned by all UK universities. "The nature of the service is one in which all universities might seek to participate, so long as they are able to get through the quality hurdles that will be in place," says Ron Cooke, Vice-chancellor of York University and chairman of the e-university steering group. The e-U will be a central commissioning agency, in which universities will be able to place their wares so long as they are considered good enough.

But that shift away from an outfit run by four leading universities to one that is engaged with the whole system is causing concern. In particular, critics liken it to the University for Industry (UfI), the initiative conceived by Gordon Brown to upgrade the skills of the British workforce and launched formally yesterday. The UfI has been set up to commission courses and to act as a portal, but has so far failed to capture the public imagination. Few people know what it is.

Some critics feel the same might happen to the e-U. "If it bears any resemblance to the UfI then it is not a good model to follow," says Roger Waterhouse, Vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, which has entered into a global e-alliance with universities in America, New Zealand and Australia.

"I think it's better for universities to do their own thing. These things happen best when you get committed universities and committed people with a good idea of what they want to do and how to do it."

David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, believes there are two ways of running an international e-university - either by doing so through the glamour consortium, or by pitching your offerings at some indeterminate market. "In the latter model, you put together a variety of courses and display them as in a supermarket," he says. But that model won't work on an international scale, he believes, because it won't give customers the brand name they may want to impress employers. "It therefore won't deliver what Mr Blunkett and Mr Blair want."

Tom Wilson, head of the universities section at the other lecturers' union, Natfhe (the National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education), is pleased with the new inclusive plan but believes it could suffer from having too amorphous an image. "It's good news from our point of view that the concept has become more open," he says. "But if the University for Industry becomes the model, then it's even less clear what it's supposed to be doing."

Higher education experts involved in the plan reject such criticism. Professor Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College London and a member of the steering committee, argues that the e-U is different from the UfI. "The University for Industry is focusing on particular UK training needs and skills gaps," he says. "Its starting point is not 'What's the best in further education?' but 'What do we need to do?' The e-university is concerned with what is best in the UK and how we project that to an international audience."

The notion that the UK e-university will fail without one or two big brand names is quite simply wrong, according to Professor O'Shea. Britain has an international reputation for its universities. Therefore, the brand name is UK higher education rather than Oxford or Cambridge. What matters is the quality of the offerings, he argues. Universities are bound to get involved, because it will be one of the main ways for them to boost the number of postgraduate students. (The University of London will certainly be involved.) Birkbeck, for example, has a world reputation for crystallography - the science of using powerful microscopes to examine the structure of molecules - and has to recruit through the ether to fill places. "We can't get enough postgraduates to come to Bloomsbury, so we have online courses for students all over the world," says Professor O'Shea.

"I don't think research departments in Oxford and Cambridge are going to be able to resist this because it's so much in their interests to use electronic means to get the students. These vacuous partnerships won't help them do that. That is why I am convinced the e-university will be a success. It's going to lever off our research and postgraduate teaching strengths and put departments in the UK in a position to greatly increase their audience."

Quentin Thompson, the consultant who led the team which drew up the business plan, says the critics have completely missed the point. The brand name will be protected by rigorous quality controls, he emphasises. "That quality check will be operated by a small number of élite universities. They will be charged with the task of designing the quality assurance processes to guarantee that every course or module is of the highest standard."

Even the London School of Economics appears to be coming round to the idea. When the business plan was first announced, the LSE said it was an "opportunity to waste an awful lot of taxpayers' money". But Professor Stephen Hill, pro-director, says now that it has not ruled out co-operating. He does, however, want more information, particularly financial data such as what money would be available to universities to develop courses and what share of the profits they would receive. "We find it difficult to make a judgement in the absence of this information," he says. Professor Hill also believes the designers need to look at intellectual property rights and licensing issues so that the universities can be clear who the material belongs to.

The cost of setting up the e-university has risen since February. The talk now is of £200m of Government money being needed, matched by £200m of private funds. According to the business model developed by the consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, the venture is extremely risky. But it is even riskier to do nothing because we're in danger of being overtaken by competitor nations.

The enterprise is moving ahead at whirlwind speed - especially for a university initiative. The new business model will be the subject of consultations until December 2000. Next year, the proposals will be developed and in 2002 it is expected to start operating. We should know within several years whether it is going the way of the Dome.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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