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Online future of higher education

14 December 2012

Online future of higher education

Students from Wales, across the UK and around the world will have free access to some of Britain's top universities thanks to Futurelearn Ltd, an entirely new company being launched by The Open University (OU).

Cardiff joins the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, East Anglia, Exeter, King's College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick who have all signed up to join Futurelearn.

Futurelearn will be independent but majority-owned by the OU. It will:

  • Bring together a range of free, open, online courses from leading UK universities, that will be clear, simple to use and accessible;
  • Draw on the OU's expertise in delivering distance learning and pioneering open education resources to underpin a unified, coherent offer from all of its partners;
  • Increase accessibility to higher education for students across the UK and in the rest of the world.

Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University said: "Cardiff is a global player, with an academic community recognised for its international distinction and impact. 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."

Global demand

Futurelearn has been warmly welcomed by government. The Minister for Universities and Science responsible for higher education in England, David Willetts, said:

"The UK must be at the forefront of developments in education technology. 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 like 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."


Leighton Andrews AM, Minister for Education and Skills in the Welsh Government, also welcomed the news. He said: "The area of Open Educational Resources is a fast-moving field in which the power of the internet and information technology can transform access to learning globally. I have encouraged the higher education sector in Wales as a whole to engage with this in a serious way and I am delighted that this new initiative from the OU – which already has a pan-UK and global reach – takes a lead in charting an exciting path into the future from which learners in Wales will be beneficiaries. 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 HE in Wales."

The Open University

OU expertise

Martin Bean, the 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 and open up access to learning for a wider range of students than ever before. The OU has decades of experience in world-class distance learning – each year we teach around 250,000 registered students, with literally millions of others accessing our free, informal online offerings. Futurelean will take this 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 one of the key architects of the development of BBC Online, Simon Nelson, to head up the company as launch CEO. Nelson spent 14 years at the Corporation where he helped set up iPlayer and its forerunner, Radio Player and led all digital activities for, first its radio division and then across all television content. 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."


Rob Humphreys, Director of The Open University in Wales, said: "The Open University's mission to open up higher education to all who can benefit, whether in Wales, the UK or across the world, has always been founded on the best use of modern technology and putting the leaner at the centre of things. I'm delighted that Futurelearn will have a strong Welsh flavour, and that The OU in Wales and Cardiff University are together taking a lead in meeting the challenges laid down by the Minister in the area of educational resources."

Cardiff University and The OU in Wales also recently launched a series of events at The Pierhead aimed at promoting and facilitating debate about politics and government in modern Wales and beyond. These events, such as the Wales Governance Centre lecture given by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this year, will be available to the world through The OU's OpenLearn and iTunesU platforms.


Futurelearn has been warmly welcomed by UK higher education leaders. Professor Sir 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."

Futurelearn will announce future details of its structure and courses early in the New Year.

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