e-Learning through public-private partnerships

A couple of months ago David Willetts, minister of universities and science in the United Kingdom, urged universities to
invest in putting courses online. This was not just a call to action, but also an indication that the e-learning revolution has now reached the top of the UK government’s priority list.

Due to all the recent changes in the British market, e-learning is certainly something that all higher education leaders should be considering as an alternative tool for expanding global reach, improving access and, of course, increasing revenue.

The decline in enrolments at universities on both sides of the Atlantic indicates once more how important it is for institutions to promote innovation in order to become more competitive.

Our colleagues from the business world tend to say that when a market is stagnated, one of the best solutions is to expand your zone of operation and explore new regions. But when it comes to higher education, an industry that relies a lot on infrastructure and personnel, moving into transnational education can easily hit huge obstacles.

Regardless of the circumstances, many institutions have managed to do it effectively. As examples, I am quite proud to mention my current institution, the London School of Business and Finance, which has offshore campuses in Toronto and Singapore, as well as my previous university, Westminster, which successfully established a campus in Uzbekistan in 2002.

In my experience, opening a whole new offshore campus can be a very rewarding venture, but it certainly is not something for everyone – and I believe Willetts’ emphasis on promoting online education comes exactly from this realisation.


Purists argue that e-learning will never replace traditional education. I totally agree with them. Some of our most forward-thinking universities already understand that e-learning is not here to replace education as we know it. It is here to complement it.

It is here to enrich it by reaching new places and markets that go beyond the traditional 18- to 24-year age group. e-Learning is here to meet the demands of those who, at different ages, are looking for new types of education to meet their professional needs and career pathways.

Personally, I see e-learning as one of the most revolutionary inventions since Gutenberg created the printing press. It is indeed a fantastic way to expand access to education at a global level.

One of the countless advantages of investing in e-learning is the ease with which new markets can be tapped. Not only can this be a great source of revenue, but it can also serve a broader mission, fulfilling some of the key aims at many organisations – promoting access and widening participation.

Access is typically associated with social responsibility. Yet, in my view, it is just as much about global economic principles. The global economy cannot afford to waste talent just because someone lives in a remote town and does not have the means to study abroad.

As global educators, it is our role to make sure that education starts to be seen as an export product, rather than just a national service. It is our job to point out to the world’s leaders that investing wisely in our young human resources is pivotal to guaranteeing the world’s future prosperity.

Global citizens

I even dare to extend our responsibility to another level: as leaders in higher education in the 21st century, it is down to us to develop responsible global citizens, who are keen to make a positive contribution and influence tomorrow’s world.

Global citizenship comes with a feeling of responsibility towards what is happening in the world. And it is our job to help these citizens to fully comprehend that this responsibility goes beyond writing a cheque and giving it to charity.

With a truly global and interactive mindset, e-learning can be a great tool to stimulate such awareness. In 2007, for instance, we launched an online education company, which has since helped us to reach international markets in a unique way.

When students who have never had the chance to leave their country suddenly see themselves integrated into a network of more than 12,000 people from over 150 countries, they feel that they are part of something much wider – they become global citizens.


Higher education is not immune to globalisation. Moreover, universities should be a force contributing to the globalisation process. Instead of being in denial about modern realities, universities should take a front seat and lead a positive, constructive form of globalisation.

As rector magnificus of Nyenrode Business University, the Dutch 'leadership institution' for the corporate world, I was frequently contacted by big employers requesting us to develop e-learning solutions for their staff – so that they could involve more talented employees with executive training.

e-Learning, importantly, is not just about degree programmes, but has even more scope in professional education. It is the means by which companies can remain ahead in the competitive knowledge economy – and I believe universities potentially have a major role, a responsibility or, at the very least, a massive commercial opportunity in this economy.

There are several factors that determine how successful someone is in the global village, but one important element is how effectively institutions interact with one another and with students worldwide. e-Learning can certainly play a major role in supporting this interaction.

One of the strengths of networking via e-learning is being able to link local and global communities, rather than approaching them as segregated dimensions.

Via online education, for instance, a group of teachers and students in Asia can be linked to a cluster in Europe or Latin America. This means that universities can contribute significantly to the global village, exposing corporate partners and communities to a highly valuable network of global knowledge and expertise.

I strongly believe that knowledge should not stay within the realm of universities. The dominant form of university in future will be one that is hybrid with society, acknowledging that learning and development is in the interest of all, no longer focusing primarily on the next generation of academics, but rather on effective graduates who can add real value to society.


If starting operations at an international location requires a lot of investment, creating an online education platform is not cheap either.

Good e-learning demands investment in a platform that works well in any device and can provide students with support, interactivity and accessibility. Academic resources and blended learning options can also make your platform more competitive.

A crucial feature, however, is scalability. Can your platform help you to reach your potential students on a global scale? Well, it definitely should.

If you want to take the whole process of creating an e-leaning platform in-house, you have to be prepared to invest in an entire IT system, as well as audio and video equipment, studios, cameras, technically qualified people and, of course, qualified online tutors.

It certainly can be an expensive venture – £10 million (US$15 million) in our case – which not all of us are prepared to embark on.

An alternative way to do so is by entering into a partnership with online education companies, who already have the expertise in place to take courses to the international market.

This partnership model can represent a solution for those institutions that do not have the funds or structures in-house or do not want to shift substantial resources to create them. Established online companies already know how implementing it all can represent a burden for universities, so they tend to take some of the risks away.

Online education companies can usually create and take online courses to market within months. Their structure allows them to take on board the entire production process – from planning to development and advertising.

In my opinion, this is a perfect example of how public and private institutions can work really effectively together.

Impact on revenue

Expanding your zone of operation inevitably impacts on revenue. In e-learning, a sector that is expected to reach US$107.3 billion by 2015, this impact can represent quite a hefty addition to the turnover of an institution.

I believe the financial results that good online education can bring to universities come in two different forms.

The first result is a direct impact on the number of applications and, consequently, students. Secondly, e-learning indirectly improves visibility, giving universities the chance to stand out in the global education market.

There are almost 30,000 universities out there. To make your brand visible in the higher education sea, it is important to be recognised worldwide for the right reasons.

A good example of this ‘indirect’ revenue is the advent of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, aiming to achieve large-scale participation and open access.

By working with online companies to create MOOCs, universities have the chance to reach new audiences, promote their faculties and give students a taste of what their programmes are like. The downside, however, is the low level of adherence, as only around 10% of students may sign up to complete a course and get certified.

I find the business model of MOOCs rather confusing, unproven and even highly speculative. It is much more driven by academic than commercial values, which is fine, except for the fact that quality ultimately costs money and such funds should not automatically be charged to the taxpayer.

Not surprisingly, I consider the public-private model sound, making good business sense for students, universities, investors and operators. For this model to be sustainable, however, it needs to have solid foundations, rigorous quality controls and a sensible, transparent commercial underpinning.


All of the solutions, examples and alternatives presented here can improve visibility, enhance reputation and also contribute to the academic well-being of an institution – as we all know, academic quality and financial health go hand in hand in modern times.

I am convinced that, led by partnerships and especially through public-private collaborations, e-learning will add a whole new dimension to higher education.

As well as making higher education much more accessible, it will further stimulate the development of the knowledge economy, and boost the reputation of universities and their financial health.

It is not a threat to our sector and it is not likely to replace conventional learning models, but e-learning does present one of the most exciting opportunities for academic learning in the past few centuries.

* Professor Maurits van Rooijen is chief executive (academic divisions) of Global University Systems BV and rector and CEO of London School of Business and Finance. He is also president of the Compostela Group of Universities, co-chairman of the World Association for Co-operative Education and Vice President of the European Access Network.