The Open University (OU) has launched a new company to increase UK students’ access to some of the country’s top universities.
Futurelearn, an independent company but majority owned by the OU, will offer free, online courses from UK universities including Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick.
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The minister for universities and science responsible for higher education in England, David Willetts, said: "Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) present an opportunity for us to widen access to, and meet the global demand for, higher education. This is growing rapidly in emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China.
“Futurelearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education. New online delivery tools will also create incredible opportunities for UK entrepreneurs to reach world markets by harnessing technology and innovation in the field of education."
Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said: “MOOCs represent an enormous development in higher education, one that has the potential to bring about long-lasting change to the HE sector.
“Futurelearn will take our proud heritage and work with some of Britain’s best-known universities to write the next chapter in the story of British higher education.”
The OU has recruited Simon Nelson to spearhead the launch. Nelson was a key architect on the development of BBC Online and as the OU’s new launch CEO he said: “There has been rapid and widespread growth in open online courses, but until now UK universities have only had the option of working with US-based platforms.
“Futurelearn will aim to bring together the leading UK universities to create a combined and coherent offer for students in the UK and internationally. I look forward to using the OU’s proud history of innovation and academic excellence to create something the UK will be proud of and the world will want to be a part of.”
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Futurelearn has been welcomed by ministers from across the UK.
Leighton Andrews, minister for education and skills in the Welsh Government, said: “It is especially pleasing to see that the OU will be working with Cardiff University to explore new ways of providing learning opportunities that can take some of the best of higher education in Wales to the world, and bring the world to learners and higher education in Wales.”
Professor Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University agreed. “We’re pleased to partner with the Open University as one of the first universities to join Futurelearn and to lead the sector in Wales. This exciting initiative provides a real opportunity to extend access across the world to our high-quality education experience,” he said.
In Scotland, the cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, Michael Russell said: “I am pleased to note that Scottish institutions are involved in this new initiative which has the potential to open up research and learning to a wider group than before and contribute to our objectives around widening access.”
Vice-chancellors from some of the universities involved also shared their views on the new initiative.
Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, said online education is becoming an important approach which may open substantial opportunities to those without access to conventional universities.
"This OU initiative is an exciting means to build on its established success and expand its mission,” he said.
Professor Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, said: "This is an important step forward in opening up the channels by which individuals can access some of the highest quality educational opportunities.
“In a world where people increasingly access content in a multiplicity of ways, it is only right that higher education can be accessed by alternative and complementary methods."