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MP slams failed online university

'Shameful waste' of public money

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An online university that cost the government £62m to set up has been closed down having failed to attract enough students. Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP and chair of science and technology committee at the Commons has condemned the scheme, UKeU, as a "shameful waste" of public money, and an "absolute disaster".

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Gibson said that those who ploughed public money into the venture should be publicly censured. He also called on the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to explain its role in the affair.

The online university was intended to act as a portal, selling other universities' online degree programmes. It was a joint venture between the government, the universities that signed up and Sun Microsystems, which provided the platform supporting the whole thing.

According to the BBC, the plug was pulled on the scheme in February this year, and says it is now being "quietly dismantled". The UKeU bills this process as restructuring, and said it would transfer some of its activities.

The Hefce sent consultants in to investigate in December 2003. Their report, which was leaked to the BBC, criticised the management's lack of focus, and said the marketing was based "more on optimism than market-led judgements".

Shortly after the report was filed, Hefce pulled the plug on funding the organisation it is current form.

Even so, Hefce maintains a very strong public defence of the e-university. It says that things have changed considerably in the time since the venture was set up in 2001, the very tail end of the dotcom glory days.

Despite a prolonged publicity effort, the e-university only attracted 900 students. Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education select committee, said that the public cost per student had been £44,000. El Reg's sums put the figure at closer to £70,000.

The whole affair will be examined by the Commons education select committee in June. ®

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