The deal just agreed between the Open University and leading conventional universities to provide courses online could be the most significant development in UK higher education for decades.
As a result, students from all over the world will be able to access courses run by Russell Group universities, such as Birmingham, Bristol and King's College London, through a company – Futurelearn Ltd – set up by the Open University.
To some extent, the UK has been slow off the mark in this respect. Although the Open University was a pioneer in distance learning in its time, many US universities have beaten their UK counterparts to the provision of internet courses. Not only that, but as the Universities minister, David Willetts, points out, emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China have already jumped on the bandwagon. As a result, their academies – and those in the US – are becoming household names to students around the world. The new scheme is thus essential to ensure that the UK maintains its position as a world-class provider of higher education.
As yet it is unclear what will actually be provided. The availability of teaching materials could help students to take a degree course online with leading members of the Russell Group, but that will depend on what individual subscribers want to offer. At very least, they could provide preparatory courses that pave the way for students to gain easier access to full-time degree courses.
The launch material spoke of students worldwide being able to access courses set by top universities for free, but whether to charge or not for a degree course will probably be up to the individual institution. The question then is whether that fee would be as high as the present level of tuition fees, which would add an interesting dimension to the debate about access to higher education in England and Wales.