The squeaky-clean image of a designer university

'Webucation' is set to become the real big business of the 21st century. British universities want to cash in but, they must protect their reputations
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The Independent Online

They say image is everything. When it comes to promoting distance learning, this is becoming increasingly true. Where once distance learning consisted of watching professors with poor fashion sense on the television late at night, these days it is at the cutting edge of expanding education, both here and overseas.

They say image is everything. When it comes to promoting distance learning, this is becoming increasingly true. Where once distance learning consisted of watching professors with poor fashion sense on the television late at night, these days it is at the cutting edge of expanding education, both here and overseas.

But with the increasing popularity of distance-learning courses - fuelled by the internet and the need for many to combine learning with careers - comes a new danger for universities. That danger is brand piracy, which threatens the most valuable asset that UK universities have: their reputation based on their history of academic quality.

"A brand can be one of the most valuable assets of an educational establishment," says Martyn Goodger of Mills and Reeve Solicitors. "Pirate websites can publish hostile material to that institution." That value of reputation which British universities have can be a target of those who wish to cash in or attack an institution, and while big multi-nationalcompanies have had years of experience dealing with these sorts of attacks, universities are having to learn fast how to protect themselves. "Already we have had one case where a UK university was forced to take legal action against a group of disgruntled students. The students registered a close variant of the university's website and posted derogatory and, in some instances, defamatory remarks about that university.

"In another two cases, universities have acted to shut down what they considered to be unsavoury websites that were linked to the official university website because the university did not want to be associated with their content."

The website is the vehicle for distance learning to thrive. Via the internet, students can learn at their own pace and work to their own timetable. This ability to "turn on" your education when you are ready is vital for distance learners.

Not only does the technology make studying an even more practical option, the internet can provide various forms of media, such as video, audio and graphics. And e-mail contact between student and teacher means that queries can be quickly dealt with.

But in this virtual world, maintaining the quality and reputation of the course is of paramount importance to universities and other course providers. The "brand" of the institution has to maintain the quality that British universities have around the world.

"The reputation of the university is very important," says Professor Colin Hawkes, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University. "Academic standards must be maintained at the highest level: that is the core of our reputation. But the image of quality in British education means we have a very good reputation internationally, and that must be maintained.

Why do universities seek to protect their image so fiercely? Maybe one reason is that distance learning is big business and is set to expand exponentially over the next decade. "Webucation" could become the real big business of the 21st century. Education spending worldwide at present is $1,500bn. But Alan Gilbert of Universitas 21, a network of British and overseas universities, believes that will double over the next five years, then double again in the five years after that.

"The market for funding is much more important now," says Lynn Russell of the University of Leicester. Universities looking to gain extra income will go abroad to seek funds as well as students. Over the last five to 10 years they have been encouraged to do so by government, though not without hiccups. There are risks involved for them and, according to Professor Hawkes, they have had to learn the hard way.

But all academics across the country's universities are agreed that reputations must not be diminished in any way. The reputation of an institution is the lifeblood for increasing student numbers and funding for research. And universities will want a cut of the growth in the distance learning business.

The reputation of an institution will be of paramount importance to students when choosing a distance learning course. But reputation is not just linked to the academic quality. Universities are increasingly making links with the private sector. Some high street banks have, over the years, been damaged by links with countries with poor human rights records. This is not a situation that universities want to find themselves in.

"We do think about the ethical dimension with respect to our external links," says Professor Hawkes. "We want to ensure that we link with organisations that have a similar ethos to our own. To those organisations we have difficulty with, we have to say 'goodbye'."

The links with the private sector are likely to be promoted more vigorously in future as a means of attracting UK students to distance learning. Many students taking these courses are updating skills for their present careers and cannot afford to take chances with their training.

"We work closely with the private sector and one of the ways they can help is in advising or helping to upskill students," says Ms Russell. "We find the involvement of respected companies with our courses is reassuring for new students."

International Centre for Distance Learning website; http://icdl.open.ac.uk. Open and Distance Learning Quality Council, 16 Park Crescent, London W1H 4AH, 020-7612 7090, www.odlqc.org.uk/odlqc. The free information line Learn Direct is on 0800 100 900

c.brown@independent.co.uk

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