BRITAIN’S leading universities are to begin offering free online courses this week to rival those available from top American establishments.
St Andrew’s and others will offer students remote access to tutorials featuring high-profile lecturers and the ability to browse treasures held by the British Museum – which are partners in the scheme.
Bristol, St Andrews, Warwick, Leeds, Nottingham and Exeter, which all charge fees of £9,000 a year for a degree on campus, are among the 24 UK universities backing FutureLearn, the company behind the venture.
Students from more than 140 countries have signed up to sample FutureLearn’s free teaching in literature, business, psychology, marketing and science.
E-Courses on offer include The Mind is Flat, an explanation of “nudge theory” and decision-making, which will feature Lord O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary to three prime ministers.
Southampton has created e-courses including web science, which investigates how the internet evolves and its effect on peoples lives.
Simon Nelson, the chief executive of FutureLearn said: “These are the first free electronic courses to be offered by British universities.
“I think they will end up being hugely popular.”
Some academics, including AC Grayling, the philosopher, have so far declined to put any of their lectures online.
Grayling believes that the threat to traditional degrees has been exaggerated, “online courses will never displace face-to-face conversation.
Neither Oxford nor Cambridge is taking part, although a spokesman for Cambridge said it was “watching developments with interest.”
Using internet discussion groups, students will be able to engage in intellectual debates and take exams and multiple choice tests online as they study.
They will not, however, get a free degree. Instead, mini taster courses lasting between two and eight weeks may attract credits which could be added together into a degree.
Nelson added: “The digital world is here to stay but I do not think it will mean the death of the university – that would assume that universities would do nothing to adapt.
“The rules are not written for this market yet. This is the entry of some of the highest quality universities in the world into this space.
“If people are interested in going further, we will offer them the chance to take an exam to demonstrate mastery of the subject.
“We can also provide a link to applying for a paid degree at one of the partner universities.”
The initiative has raised fears that in future free e-degrees, studied at home could undermine study on campus and even put some universities at risk.
“Universities could go the way of the dodo,” said one unnamed academic. “Why will students want to pay £9,000 a year when they can take an online degree for free?”
Ministers are concerned that Britain is being left behind in the e-learning market with Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) already offering online courses.
“In America, the Ivy League have been offering online courses for some time,” said a source close to David Willetts, the higher education minister.
“In 10 years time there may be just one universities or platform offering online courses and it may have become the dominant player worldwide.”