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December 01, 2003
Government e-University scheme flounders

It may sound ideological and churlish, but I sincerely believe that I have good and honourable reasons to be quite pleased about this:

A flagship learning scheme has been branded a failure after attracting just 900 students. The online teaching programme, UK e-Universities Worldwide, has spent 30m so far, equivalent to more than 33,000 of hard-pressed education funds on enrolling each pupil.

Launched three years ago in a blaze of publicity by then Education Secretary David Blunkett, only 15 universities have so far joined the attempt to introduce internet courses for students the world over.

The programme banked on attracting 100,000 students by 2010 on to a set of undergraduate, post-graduate and life-long learning courses. Experts were confident it would be immensely popular by allowing international students to take advantage of a UK university education.

It's not that I'm against e-ducation, to coin a hyphenation. Far from it. E-ducation is a regular theme here. But the way to get anything started is to start it small, then do lots of ducking and weaving while you find out what works and what doesn't, and only when you have perfected things on a very small scale, to start expanding. The besetting sin of politicians is that they jump to conclusions ("experts were confident" - aren't they always?) about what will work, and neglect that early experimental phase. Governments do this (a) because they can because they have the money, and (b) because for them, the appearance of activity is at least as important as the reality of it. A big launch, followed by nothing much, serves purpose (b) quite well. If they do too many schemes in the (a) category, public spending gets so out of control that even their interests are severely threatened. But much more damaging, in my opinion, is that if the government did throw big money at e-ducation, lots of other small schemes along these lines which are being funded by, you know, people, would face being trampled under foot by a herd of government funded e-ducational elephants.

The reality of e-ducation is that huge numbers of people are doing it in huge numbers of different ways. The less the government piles in with big money, the better. If the failure of this scheme causes the government to back off, good.

Besides which, one of the things that e-ducation should surely be is cheap. And you can't discover what is cheap by writing out cheques for thirty million quid, and when that disappoints, throw in another sixty million.

As so often these days, the Conservative complaint/response is not based on the principle of whether some scheme is or is not a good idea, but merely on the alleged unsatisfactoriness of its execution. Time and again, the Conservatives say, as here: words are all very fine, but where's the action? - but without troubling to consider whether it might not have been even better for there to have been even less action, or no action at all.

Tim Yeo, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Education, said: 'As with so many of its initiatives, the Government failed to move from eye-catching announcement to effective action.'

But as I say, that's probably no bad thing. Do the Conservatives favour lashings more money being thrown at e-ducation? In their own way they are being just as sneaky as the government and in much the same way, implying that they would spend more on whatever scheme they are complaining about, but not actually saying that they will.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:40 AM
Category: The Internet

You are spot on re. the Conservative's response to this. I cannot remember the last time that the Tories responded to a Nulabor educational "initiative" other than by saying (in effect) "We would have done it better". They never seem to say "We wouldn't have done it at all".

Comment by: Julius on December 1, 2003 04:43 PM

If they are genuinely experts, they often aren't confident. The trouble is that government prefers people who are confident to people who are experts. That said, the tendency for people a long way from the coal face to decide how a system is going to work with out understanding the details, then to spend vast amounts of money implementing a system top down then bottom up, then to junk it because it doesn't work is endemic to large organisations of all kinds, I think, not just governments.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on December 2, 2003 10:30 AM
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