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Together in electric dreams

Now more than ten years after the dismantling of the UK's e-University, Alice Bell revisits the much-maligned project and its notable place in the recent history of higher education and e-learning. With politicians and funders increasingly keen on e-learning, and a whiff of tech-utopianism still in the air, what can we learn from the story of the HE sector's most high-profile dot-com bubble failure?

Alice Bell is a writer, campaigner and researcher specialising in the politics of science, technology and the environment.

It was February in the year 2000, and in a heady swirl of hope, dreams and technology, David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education, announced an e-University for the UK.

Formally UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited — UKeU to its friends — it’d tap into the many opportunities of the web to offer the best of UK higher education to the world. It wasn’t to be a university in its own right, more a platform for delivering courses.

But, by 2004, after attracting just 900 students it was eventually dismantled. £50m of public money seemingly wasted. The whole thing lasted a little over four years.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) would lead the project, but do so working in collaboration with universities and industry. By Spring 2002 a CEO was in post, and a framework agreement had been signed with Sun Microsystems, who were to develop the learning environment it would all sit upon. By March 2003 two courses had been launched. By January 2004 some 25 courses were recruiting students.

But it speedily became clear that HEFCE felt the recruitment of students was far too slow. They were also apparently concerned by the lack of private investment. By early 2004, HEFCE had announced a restructure of UKeU leading to a rapid decline in funds and confidence. UKeU closed as an operating entity that summer.

Ian Gibson, then chair of the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee told the BBC it was “an absolute disaster”. The then chief executive of HEFCE, Sir Howard Newby and its chairman, David Young told a Education Select Committee hearing in June 2004 they were “uncomfortable” with the private-sector style bonus scheme taken which had seen the UKeU chief executive, John Beaumont, collecting a bonus of nearly £45,000 on top of his £186,000 salary (nothing shocking compared to VC pay today, perhaps, but a minor scandal at the time). A March 2005 report from the Education Select Committee put the boot in with an easy soundbite that, at a cost of £44,000 per student, studying with UKeU was more expensive than Oxbridge.

As Donald MacLeod, then editor of Education Guardian, described it, the UKeU was “being buried with as much decorum as the education establishment can muster.”

The UKeU website c.2003

It was UK higher education’s very own foray into the dot-com bubble crash. But you can see why, at first, it might have seemed like a good idea. It was the year 2000. Full of utopian promise. A sci-fi-ish tinge every time you wrote the date — a long-promised future finally arrived at. We’d survived 1984 and the millennium bug. 2001 was on the horizon. We might not be on a Space Odyssey, but offices were attempting to be paperless, mobile phones were normal, and Brian Cox’s upbeat keys on Things Can Only Get Better was — although increasingly getting fainter — still in earshot. Blair’s ‘Science Matters’ speech was still a couple of years off, and after the Great White Heat of 1960s, Labour was being reformatted for a bright, new, digital era.

The basic premise was simple, and potentially powerful. The multiple resources of UK education + the web = profit. The global market for higher education was, we were told, estimated to stand at £300 billion per year. There be gold in them there e-learning systems. And the UK was well-placed to take it. The UKeU would offer Oxbridge brands with OU delivery. And cash in.

Speaking in the Wren buildings of the University of Greenwich, Blunkett’s speech announcing the project was heavy with the rhetoric of globalisation, progress, technology and speed passing of time:

“Across the world, its [higher education’s] shape, structure and purposes are undergoing transformation because of globalisation. At the same time, it provides research and innovation, scholarship and teaching which equip individuals and businesses to respond to global change. World class higher education ensures that countries can grow and sustain high-skill businesses, and attract and retain the most highly-skilled people. It endows people with creative and moral capacities, thinking skills and depth knowledge that underpin our economic competitiveness and our wider quality of life. It is therefore at the heart of the productive capacity of the new economy and the prosperity of our democracy.”

Blunkett was keen to put the project quite firmly in a business frame too. Learning, of any kind, had “become big business.” Moreover, there was a sense that any idea for a UKeU already had international competitors. There were concerns about News International, who had recently purchased a 25% stake in Scottish Knowledge Plc, as well as moves from more traditional players in the educational publishing game — Pearson, Simon & Schuster, etc. — and the rise of corporate in-house universities — Motorola and British Aerospace, for example — where businesses trained-up staff for themselves.

Of particular concern was the US — especially University of Phoenix Online and the University of Maryland University College — and Blunkett argued British universities shouldn’t be beaten when it came to monitizing the power of the English language:

“American providers, having grown rapidly in their home country, are now using the competitive advantage bestowed by the fact that English is the global language to expand overseas… We must have big aspirations, even if we are a small country. It is absolutely clear that we must use the competitive advantage we have been given by the English language and the international reputation of our higher education system to make major strides in these markets.”

A fitting sentiment, perhaps, for the Greenwich setting, though anyone considering running one of those shiny new e-courses on post-colonialist thought might have had a few notes for Mr Blunkett.

The arrogance of this view-from-GMT was more than just offensive. It was arguably part of the project’s failing. People might come to the UK to study, and pay through the nose to do so, but that is part of a more immersive social experience where you also learn the language and have a chance to build networks in the UK. Whether the hassle of learning English is so attractive when you just want to pass a specific course is another matter.

A larger ethical and economic questions involved in quite how far Britain can scale the expectation that other countries want to buy our educational institutions is one which could be applied elsewhere. And perhaps applied to some US players while we’re at it too. If there is such a large market for learning out there, what right do we have to tap it? On what basis do we think a great new revolution for higher education should be plotted out of offices in London or Bristol? Might the world be better off we took a more distributed approach to power in learning?

This flows into another question for UKeU which hints at a problem of the whole enterprise. What exactly is e-learning for? Or rather who is it for?

Were the architects of UKeU simply safe-guarding UK universities as brands in a globalised marketplace, worried News International and Phoenix online might encroach on to their patch. Or were they hoping to utilise the web to make a quick buck for UK HE PLC off their own back? Was it more an exercise in taking public sector resources and finding ways to build markets for UK businesses on top of them, than drive any really meaningful educational aims?

Another problem was that the timing was wrong. In some ways, it was just a bit early. Like many similar projects, internet speeds weren’t quite up to the tech-utopian ideal. The countries in which UKeU was looking to market might well have seemed ready for the modem speeds required, but that didn’t mean that, on the ground, each possible customer would be.

But in many other ways, the project was too late, not too early. Not only did UK HE make the misguided decision to make a play at the dot-com boom, but they got into the game after everyone else. So investors, burnt by projects carrying that sneaky lower-case ‘e’ before, were shy. This was, arguably, a key stumbling block in the project’s ability to bring in money. According to the 2004 Select Committee report, “Alarm bells should have started ringing as soon as private investment failed to materialise. Despite this, executives ploughed on believing their product would pull through in the end.” Perhaps this offers another lesson for policy design; simple flexibility.

Predicting accusations of technological utopianism, Bunkett’s speech had stressed that online learning is often best when combined with face-to-face tuition. But networks of OU style face-to-face tutors didn’t really work in the UKeU model. The need for so-called “blended learning” — mixing the “e” with something a bit more “IRL” — became a keyword in the various obits of the UKeU, but is arguably a lesson few learnt. It was a stumbling block for MOOCs too.

Another criticism levelled at UKeU was that they spent a lot of money building a new platform, rather than just using Blackboard or WebCT. But, as anyone who has tried to use either of these will tell you, they’re clunky. They protect educational materials from people who haven’t paid to join the course, but their closed system makes also them unintuitive to use. Students and tutors use them when that’s all that is on offer. But they aren’t exactly enticing.

If UKeU was to build a new, successful system for their ambitious new idea, they needed a way to charm people in, able to compete with the much more open (and free) informal learning spaces like Wikipedia. But, as Kim Howells — then minister for education — described UKeU in late 2004, it had a “rubbish” and  “awkward” name, typical of the dot-com boom, with a mystifying lack of any serious marketing.

The issue of marketing was less of a problem for MOOCs, perhaps, and arguably they had slightly different challenges as the online marketplace had changed so much in only a few years. The idea of offering content for free, but charging for a certificate, applied by a lot of online learning systems now is perhaps a business model the UKeU system could have found some worth in. UKeU might also have benefited from many MOOCs’ ability to experiment and, similarly, the chance to work this side of the culture changes brought about by the Government Digital Service. A more ‘agile’ approach to software development might well have made many of Howells’ concerns over branding and marketing irrelevant.

Either way, projects like this seem to be battling against strong movements, often from the academy itself, which would rather learning was set free. Academic publishing in a digital age suffers a similar problem, and we might trace similar patterns in the way tech-utopianism and ideas of freedom have been worked through UK open access policy too. In comparison, all these attempts to monitise the process look a bit sad and proprietary. For all politicians’ desire to describe technology, business and progress as somehow intimately connected, it’s hard to see UKeU and its friends as anything other than being on the wrong side of history.

Arguably, the context of the dot-com boom made it all too easy for the various politicians and media to put the boot in. Perhaps it wasn’t quite the massive fail it was written up as at the time. Like any such big, now-disbanded projects, people who worked on it learnt from the experience and took that learning on elsewhere. But the basic hubris of the project — the sense that British education is so preeminent that wherever technology takes it, markets will follow, and that educational institutions are a resource to be tapped for business opportunities — is a warning from history many would do well to heed today.

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