Poor student take-up and a lack of private finance were the main reasons for
the failure of the Government-backed UK e-Universities (UKeU) company, which is
currently being wound down and its activities transferred.
When it was established in 2001, the public-private initiative aimed to make
UK higher education available worldwide through online degrees and courses, but
despite the availability of £62m of Government funding, UKeU only managed to
attract 900 students by September 2003, way below its target of 6,500.
"The problem was not one thing but lots of things," said Dr Liz
Beaty, director of learning and teaching at the Higher Education Funding
Council of England. "It was a big stretch for the company to go from
creating learning and development materials, building a platform for delivery,
and then doing all the marketing at the other end. We also didn’t get the
private funding that we’d hoped for. This was partly due to factors such as the
dotcom crash, since money wasn’t being put into e-learning at that time."
Beaty is keen to point out that the demise of the online venture isn’t a
reflection of e-learning’s abilities, but more that changes in the learning
landscape meant UKeU was no longer the right structure to deliver such learning.
"E-learning has changed so much over the past few years," she
said. "Our recent research showed that universities and colleges are now
getting into managed learning environments, but they want to do it in their own
way and build out from their core business rather than have a company do it for
"While it’s been disappointing, the sector [higher education] is
telling us that it doesn’t want people to think it isn’t interested in
e-learning, because that’s just not true. The message is that e-learning is
taking off but in a more blended way, with a campus-based lead, rather than a
big push out to distance learning."
Funding for the UKeU project totalled £50m, which includes a limited and
final sum to facilitate restructuring and transferring its activities. The
balance of the £62m originally provided by the Government, as well as other
funds, will be used to support the development of e-learning in universities
Following the most recent board meeting by HEFCE in June, a number of its activities
are being transferred, including the e-China programme (a Sino-UK e-learning
project), which will be project managed by the University of Cambridge and the
e-Learning Research Centre. This will continue as a partnership between the
Universities of Manchester and Southampton, and the Higher Education Academy.
By Sue Weekes