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by Paul Bacsich

This page is a survey of the situation in the United Kingdom.

For a list of entities in the United Kingdom relevant to e-learning, see Category:United Kingdom.

For additional information for e-learning in all sectors of education in the various home nations of the UK and its dependent islands see the specific pages:

Partners situated in the United Kingdom

Matic Media Ltd is based in the UK.

The United Kingdom in a nutshell

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom, the UK, or Britain is an island country located off the north-western coast of mainland Europe.

The UK includes the island of Great Britain, the northeast part of the island of Ireland and many small islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border, sharing it with the Republic of Ireland.

Apart from this land border, the UK is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel and the Irish Sea. The largest island, Great Britain, is linked to France by the Channel Tunnel.

The United Kingdom is a political union of four "home nations" England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In the much longer term the total or partial break-up of the union appears inevitable to some commentators but the best evidence is that such a discontinuity is still some years ahead, and further ahead than it was, given the recent recession and problems with banks in some small countries. However, already (as in Canada) the various education systems in the four home nations of the UK are significantly different and getting more so. Even the authoritative OECD finds it impossible to provide unified reports on some aspects of the UK educational system.

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy with its seat of government in London, the capital, and a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the head of state.

The Crown Dependencies of the Channel Islands (Guernsey and Jersey) and the Isle of Man, formally possessions of the Crown, are not part of the UK but form a federacy with it. See separate entries for these.

The UK has fourteen British overseas territories, all remnants of the British Empire, which at its height encompassed almost a quarter of the world's land surface, making it the largest empire in history. As a direct result of the empire, British influence can be observed in the language and culture of states such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the United States, and other less globally influential independent states. The Queen remains the head of the Commonwealth and head of state of the several Commonwealth countries.

The UK is a developed country with the sixth largest economy in the world. It was the world's foremost power during the 19th and early 20th century, but the economic cost of two world wars and the decline of its empire in the latter half of the 20th century diminished its formerly leading role in global affairs. The UK nevertheless retains strong economic, cultural, military and political influence.

It is a member of the European Union.

The United Kingdom education policy

Education policy is devolved to the four home nations, both for schools and for tertiary education.

For schools and for universities there are still many similarities between England, Wales and Northern Ireland (EWNI) - but Scotland is very different. In particular, the exit qualifications for Scotland are different from those in EWNI and a typical university course (BA or BSc programme) is four years not three.

Each home nation has a Department or Ministry (sometimes more than one) looking after education. For example in England there is DCSF for schools and DIUS (now part of DBIS) for universities, with some shared areas of responsibility especially for tertiary non-university education where essentially tertiary education in the 14-19 area is under the guidance of DCSF and for older students under DIUS (now DBIS).

Some developmental or regulatory agencies - in particular QAA, JISC and the Higher Education Academy are (still) shared across the four home nations, but with significant degrees of local autonomy.

Others, such as Becta, are more concentrated in their activity often to England or at most EWNI - that is, the home nations other than Scotland. Even OECD tends to issue separate reports for EWNI and Scotland - see for example OECD Review of the Quality and Equity of Education Outcomes in Scotland at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/2/50/39744132.pdf.

The United Kingdom education system

Children must attend school from the ages of 5 until 16. This age is likely to rise soon in most home nations.

Although many children attend publicly funded schools, private schools also exist and cater for a percentage of the population.

In England in a few years time, children will have to be in some form of compulsory education or training (at school, college or university) until 19 - and special arrangements are being made for the "14-19 agenda".

Across EWNI, children take two stages of exit examinations; GCSE typically at 16 and (for many but not all) A levels at typically age 18.

In Scotland the exit examinations have different name and levels - Lowers and Highers.

The situation for higher education is described below.

Universities in the United Kingdom

There are around 150 universities in the UK - the number rose again in 2012 when several university colleges were upgraded to universities. The variance comes mainly from deciding which components of the federal University of London are "universities" in their own right.

The Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_universities_in_the_United_Kingdom gives a full list with links to a Wikipedia page on each.

For a list of all universities based in the UK (current as at April 2013) see Category:Universities in UK - each one has an entry on this wiki.

Below is a list of around two dozen some that are better known for large-scale e-learning implementation or significant activity (including research) related to this, which Re.ViCa and recent 2012 activities analysed.

  1. University of Bolton
  2. University of Cambridge
  3. Canterbury Christ Church University
  4. University of Derby
  5. University of Edinburgh
  6. University of Glamorgan - now part of University of South Wales
  7. Heriot-Watt University
  8. University of Leicester
  9. University of Liverpool
  10. Institute of Education
  11. Middlesex University
  12. Northumbria University
  13. University of Nottingham
  14. Open University
  15. University of Oxford
  16. Oxford Brookes University
  17. Queen's University Belfast
  18. Robert Gordon University
  19. Sheffield Hallam University
  20. University of Southampton
  21. Staffordshire University
  22. University of Strathclyde
  23. University of Ulster
  24. University of Wolverhampton
  25. University of Worcester

Polytechnics in the United Kingdom

The word "polytechnic" is now no longer used in the UK. Thus in this subsection we discuss university colleges and other tertiary providers.

University colleges

As noted in Wikipedia:

The term "university college" is used in a number of countries to denote institutions that provide tertiary education but do not have full or independent university status. A university college is often part of a larger university. Precise usage varies between countries.

In the UK the situation is confused, but not identical to the general situation. Typically, university colleges are independent institutions which are too small to be counted as universities and usually also have some restriction on their ability to grant the full range of degrees especially research degrees (doctorates). In the past, as university colleges grew and developed in sophistication and competence, they tended to become approved as universities - this process is ongoing.

(By tradition, some prestigous institutions that are or were part of the University of London are also called "University College". These are covered above.)

At present (due to many having been upgraded recently) there is a historically low number of university colleges in the UK. Although several are active in e-learning and took part in the UK benchmarking exercise, none are currently engaged in large-scale e-learning activity. Among the recent university colleges of most relevance longer-term are:

  1. University College for the Creative Arts (at Canterbury, Epsom, Farnham, Maidstone and Rochester) - now University for the Creative Arts
  2. University College Falmouth - now Falmouth University
  3. St Mary's University College, Twickenham, London
  4. University College Plymouth St Mark & St John - now University of St Mark & St John

In fact only the third is still a university college.

For a list of the remaining university colleges based in the UK (current as at April 2013) see Category:University colleges in UK

Colleges of higher education

In the typical British way, there is no definition of a "college of higher education". However, in general terms they consist of institutions which are small and specialised and which do not award their own degrees - but in the typical British way this rule is only a guideline. Areas of specialisation are usually one or more of music, dance, drama, art, teacher training, theology, agriculture or nautical studies.

A very few are innovative in e-learning, but not many. Examples of those who are include:

Colleges of further education

A college of further education teaches mainly non-degree tertiary programmes. Many of them do teach some higher education as well.

There are around 450 further education colleges in the UK. There is little point in listing these, not even these who have some skill in e-learning, so we highlight some which are making more major use of e-learning. These include:

See the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Further_education for some additional - but still incomplete - information.

For a list of colleges in the UK (current as at April 2013) including all colleges in Wales and all members of the 157 Group see Category:Universities in UK

For full lists of colleges in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland see http://www.aoc.co.uk/en/about_colleges/index.cfm

Higher education reform

The concept of "higher education reform" is little understood in the UK, and hardly at all among the e-learning community. The last great reform was the removal of the "binary divide" between universities and polytechnics in 1992 - but this was 16 years ago, before many of the e-learning community were even employed at a university. There was a substantial review of higher education by Dearing in 1997 but this in the end led to changes at the fringes of the system (quality, student funding, etc) rather than to fundamental changes in the system, such as the length of study or the autonomy of institutions. And traces of the binary divide persist to this day - different job titles, different pension schemes, different approaches to governance - indeed it is only recently that the pay scales and union representation converged. As with so many things in UK universities, reform takes decades.

In confirmation of this view a Google Scholar search on "higher education reform in the UK" generated only 10 hits - and several were not in fact about the UK at all.

The Bologna Process

The general belief among UK academics is that the Bologna process consists of "the continentals" converging their approach with that which the UK has already, so that there is little need for the UK to do anything. Anomalies such as the 4-year Scottish undergraduate programme, "conversion" Masters and MAs obtained by paying a fee (at Oxford and Cambridge) are brushed aside as "tradition".

This is confirmed by the lack of recent analytic papers on the subject, as a recent paper to EUNIS demonstrates:

The original rationale behind the project was to redress the lack of apparent momentum around implementing the Bologna Process in the UK, despite the UK having an active part in its development. This was evidenced in the Europe Unit 2005 survey which showed that the general level of awareness about Bologna and its implications amongst IT and administrative practitioners in UK appeared to be less than in many other countries (UK HE Europe Unit, 2005). Although the 2007 follow-up survey results show progress, a number of issues persist. Implementation of the Diploma Supplement is not universal (currently about 60%), for example. The main reason for this appears to be difficulties with IT systems and data thus reinforcing the need for specific guidance in this area. Although the Europass scheme - which promotes mobility and serves to make skills and qualifications clearly and easily understood in Europe - underpins Bologna’s objectives, only a few UK institutions are aware of its potential to support students and are actively promoting it (UK HE Europe Unit, 2007). A key challenge is to encourage better take-up of these, among other measures. One of the collective views from a May 2007 study visit to Dublin, which brought together the project partners and representatives from a number of Irish institutions, was that the importance of emphasising the positive force of Bologna in supporting the wider institutional strategies should be promoted, rather than regarding it as an isolated initiative. Indeed, Irish universities were already poised to begin awareness-raising to their learners of the wider Europass scheme and its opportunities.

Other activities

Other less strategic reforms that should be mentioned include:

  • a sustained process since 1992 to create new universities by resourcing and upgrading existing more junior institutions
  • increased focus on ensuring that disadvantaged students have a fair chance of getting to university - the access initiatives
  • increasing the amount of HE taught in further education colleges
  • a new regional initiative to create universities in towns which do not have them.

Reforms not undertaken include:

  • no attempt to lever on the success of Open University and Ufi to create more distance education

Administration and finance

(sourced in part from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universities_in_the_United_Kingdom)

Funding for universities

The vast majority of British universities are state financed, with only one private university - the University of Buckingham - where students have to pay all their fees. None of the universities are actually state-owned, however.

Funding for universities in England, Wales and Scotland comes through "funding councils". These are not government departments, but agencies of government with a level of autonomy and representation from the sector that they oversee.

The Funding Councils are:

In Northern Ireland, due to its small size and troubled history including long periods of "direct rule", funding for universities comes directly from the government via the Department for Education Northern Ireland (DENI).

Funding for students

English undergraduate students (and students from other EU countries) have to pay university fees up to a maximum of £3,070 capped (in 2004/5). A state-provided loan is available which may only be used for tuition fee costs.

Welsh undergraduate students studying in a Welsh University have to pay a maximum university fee of £1,200. However, if they choose to study outside of Wales they are subject to the same fees as students from that country. i.e. if a Welsh student studies in England they pay £3,070.

Scottish and EU students studying in Scotland have their fees paid by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland, however also have to pay a sum of around £2,000 when they graduate.

In England, students are also entitled to apply for state-provided loans to pay for living costs, a portion of which is also means-tested. A new grant is also available, which is means-tested and offers up to £2,700 a year. As part of the deal allowing universities to charge up to £3,070 a year in tuition fees, all universities are required to offer burseries to those in receipt of the full government grant of at least £300. Different funding arrangements are in place for students on NHS funded degree and diploma courses, with students on nursing, midwifery, and operating department practice courses being eligible for a non-means tested bursary, while healthcare students on degree level courses are eligible for a means tested bursary, and are not eligible for the full student loan as a result of their bursary entitlement.

Students in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are also eligible for a means-tested grant, and many universities provide bursaries to poorer students. Non-EU students are not subsidised by the state and so have to pay much higher fees.

In principle, all postgraduate students are liable for fees, though a variety of scholarship and assistantship schemes exist which may provide support. The main sources of funding for postgraduate students are research councils such as the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). Postgraduate students from the UK or EU who spend less than 16 hours per week on course mandated lectures or seminars are also eligible to claim unemployment benefit and housing benefit, provided that they can prove they are available to work 40 hours per week. This is irrespective of whetjer they are enrolled as studying full-time or part-time. However, typically this is not a common source of funding except for students in the "writing up" stage of a PhD, where they have completed their main period of registration and are finishing off their thesis.

Quality assurance

Quality assurance for UK universities and other institutions engaged in higher education is overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). A summary of their work is given below - note that it varies between the different home nations.

QAA details

In 1997, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) was established to provide an integrated quality assurance service for UK higher education. QAA is an independent body funded by subscriptions from universities and colleges of higher education (our subscribers), and through contracts with the main higher education funding bodies. It is governed by a Board, which has overall responsibility for the conduct and strategic direction of our business.

Each university and college of higher education is responsible for ensuring that appropriate standards are being achieved and a good quality education is being offered. It is QAA's responsibility to safeguard the public interest in sound standards of higher education qualifications, and to encourage continuous improvement in the management of the quality of higher education. QAA achieves this by reviewing standards and quality, and providing reference points that help to define clear and explicit standards.

Academic standards are a way of describing the level of achievement that a student has to reach to gain an academic award (for example, a degree). They should be at a similar level across the UK.

Academic quality is a way of describing how well the learning opportunities available to students help them to achieve their award. It is about making sure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment and learning opportunities are provided for them.

QAA uses peer review processes where teams of academics conduct our audits and reviews. Some team members are drawn from industry and the professions.


Universities and colleges of higher education are reviewed through an institutional audit. Further education colleges that provide higher education programmes are reviewed through an academic review at subject level.

Institutional audit aims to ensure that institutions are providing higher education, awards and qualifications of an acceptable quality and an appropriate academic standard; and exercising their legal powers to award degrees in a proper manner.

Where a university or college of higher education has collaborative arrangements that are too large or complex to be included in institutional audit, they have a collaborative provision audit.

Academic review at subject level looks at subject areas against the broad aims of the subject provider. Judgements are made about the academic standards and the quality of learning opportunities for students.

QAA also reviews healthcare education. Major review of NHS-funded healthcare programmes in England recognises the key importance of teaching and learning within a practice setting, as well as within higher education institutions. The Department of Health has contracted with us to carry out this work. The General Osteopathic Council (GOsC) has contracted with us to carry out QAA GOsC review of osteopathic programmes of study and universities and colleges that provide them.


Enhancement-led institutional review (ELIR) has been designed by QAA in collaboration and consultation with Universities Scotland and its member universities and colleges, the student bodies in Scotland and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. It is an integral element of the enhancement-led approach to managing quality and standards in Scottish higher education. ELIR focuses on the deliberate steps taken by each univeristy or college of higher education to continually improve the learning experience of students.


Institutional review aims to ensure that institutions are providing higher education, awards and qualifications of both an acceptable quality and appropriate academic standard; and exercising their legal powers to award degrees in a proper manner. Institutional review applies to all higher education regardless of the source of funding, including higher education programmes provided by further education colleges.

Northern Ireland

Universities are reviewed using the institutional audit method developed for England.

Degree awarding powers

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, QAA runs an Access recognition scheme, where QAA licenses Authorised Validating Agencies (AVAs) to recognise Access to Higher Education courses and to issue certificates to successful students, using our official Access to Higher Education logo.

Access to Higher Education courses enable mature students from under-represented groups to progress to higher education. The AVAs are consortia that develop, validate and review Access to Higher Education courses.

Outside the UK

QAA also conducts overseas audits. QAA audits collaborative arrangements between UK universities and colleges of higher education and organisations overseas that lead to the award of degrees from UK universities and colleges of higher education.

QAA is involved in international quality assurance initiatives. This includes membership of the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education and the European Network for Quality Assurance (ENQA).

The United Kingdom's HEIs in the information society

Towards the information society

Information society strategy

Major e-learning initiatives in the United Kingdom

What follows is just some highlights.

As a matter of historical interest, the actual phrase virtual campus is (still) used in the way it is defined in this chapter at the following UK universities and colleges:

  • Universities. University of Lincoln, University of London External Programme, Oxford Brookes University and Robert Gordon University. (Sheffield Hallam University used the phrase for several years but is said to feel that nowadays the phrase is insufficiently distinctive.)
  • Colleges. City of Bristol College, Glenrothes College, North West Institute of Further and Higher Education (Londonderry), St Helens College, and the Western Colleges Consortium.
  • NHS. The NHS University (NHSU) and several medical schools including at Kings College London use or used the phrase.
  • Ulster University’s Campus One describes itself as a virtual campus.
  • One supplier’s product is called the “Teknical Virtual Campus”


It is perhaps not useful to talk about an "online learning" corpus of courses within English HE. Certainly, distance learning appears to be the preferred term in prospectuses and online, and often no mention of the delivery of a course online is made untill the fine detail of the course is viewed. An exception to this is a small number of commercial companies who are actively promoting online courses delivered on behalf of (with validation, accreditation and quality assurance by) UK HE providers.

In addition to the Open University and the University of London External System, there are a wide range of English universities with substantial operational off-campus e-learning activity. These include three distinct strands of organisation.

  • Commercial organisations delivering online courses on behalf of existing universities.
  • The two established large scale distance learning providers, as above. Delivery within this group tends to be blended distance learning, including online, hard-copy and occasionally face-to-face delivery.
  • A number of established campus universities, offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses in a limited number of areas. Delivery ranges from entirely online courses, to traditional distance learning with all points in between covered.

Commercial Organisations


Working in partnership with the University of Essex - Kaplan offers fully online study at foundation degree and “top up” BSc level. All courses are accredited by the University of Essex (with Kaplan as an affiliate college of UoE). Courses are primarily Business, Management and Finance. International Justice is also offered.


Working in partnership with the University of Liverpool, the collaboration with Laureate offers masters level online courses in Management, IT, Health and Law areas. Laureate is “an exclusive online learning partner” of the University of Liverpool, which quality assures and accredits all courses.

Resource Development International (RDI)

Works with a consortium of institutions: the University of Birmingham, University of East London, University of Wales, University of Derby, Teesside University, Sheffield Hallam University and Birmingham City University

UG and Masters level courses are on offer – largely Business, Management, Finance – also Law and Psychology. Some courses are delivered online (using the iLearn platform), some via traditional distance learning.

International Correspondence Schools (ICS)

Another consortium approach, involving Edinburgh Napier University, the University of East London, Anglia Ruskin University.

There are a range of online undergraduate degree courses on offer, primarily in Business, also Law, Psychology, Education and Health Care, English and History. There are also professional qualifications and one masters (LLM) programme.

NCC Education

A smaller consortium involving the University of Wales, the University of Portsmouth and the University of Greenwich

Business, IT and English courses at all levels, are delivered online via a proprietary VLE.

Large-scale distance learning providers

As mentioned above the Open University and the University of London External System are established institutions who deliver courses entirely via distance learning methods. Both these providers of promote the online components of their provision as being primarily concerned with peer and tutor support. Often these courses involve elements of face-to-face study or assessment, more frequently offering hard-copy material and CD ROMs. Between these two institutions, over 500 courses in the complete range of academic subjects and levels are offered.

Campus universities promoting online learning

There is currently no way to reliably summarise the online course offerings of UK campus based institutions. UCAS does not offer the ability to search for attendance options other than full and part time. The British Council “EducationUK” portal, offers the option to search for “online and distance learning” as a single option. The data for this portal is taken from the commercial company “hotcourses.com”, but their site does not allow that search option.

[1] (accessed 1 August 2009)

Using the EducationUK portal it appears that the UK offers 659 online or distance learning courses at undergraduate degree level, delivered by 60 institutions or consortia. Removing the Open University (410 degree courses), London External (39 degree courses), ICS (22 courses) and RDI (5 courses) provision discussed above this works out at 183 online or distance learning degree courses offered by 56 institutions.

The majority of the institutions listed using this portal (39) offer only one or two undergraduate degree courses classified as online or distance learning.

Some examples of large scale undergraduate provision:

University of East London (24 courses)

A range of BA/BSc courses in Management, Education, Health and Social Care, Law and Psychology. Delivery is primarily online (with some supporting materials including a core text book and someface-to-face assessment) delivered via BlackBoard Vista. Some courses are delivered via ICS (see above) [2] [3]

University of Portsmouth (20 courses)

A range of courses, including BA/BSc/BEng, PG and Foundation Degrees in Engineering, Computing, Criminal Justice and Government. Courses are described as distance learning, though the website text suggests that some online work is involved in some courses. [4]

University of Northampton (8 courses)

Does not appear to be a centrally run offer of DL courses. Business School offers primarily top-up UG courses via what appears to be a traditional DL model enhanced with some materials available electronically. E-learning is incorporated into on campus delivery. [5] [6]

University of Derby (around 30 courses, not listed on UKeducation portal)

Largely vocationally-targeted courses at a range of levels from foundation to masters. Delivery is largely online via Blackboard, though some resources are distributed on CD ROM. [7] [8]

And some examples of large scale post graduate provision:

University of Manchester (64 courses)

Range of courses from all areas of the university. Marketed and described as “distance learning”, some modules are delivered online. [9]

Staffordshire University (55 courses)

Staffordshire University delivers distance learning postgraduate courses from a range of subjects within the Blackboard virtual learning environment

London College UCK (39 courses)

Text-based distance learning, supported by materials and contacts on Moodle. London College UCK is a private institution outside of the public HE system – it markets itself largely to international students on an attendance model – fees are significantly less than for mainstream universities, though it offers level 4+ courses that do not lead to degree or masters qualifications. Courses are largely business focused.

University of Leicester (32 courses)

A largely traditional distance learning offering, with some support via a Blackboard VLE alongside multiple alternate support pathways – for example via local agents. Marketing material makes a lot of their experience in delivering distance learning. Courses offered cover archaeology, criminology, law, media, museum studies and psychology.

Sheffield Hallam University (30 courses)

A full range of post-graduate and professional qualifications. Largely traditional distance learning with some components of online support and online forums [10] [11]

Additional information

A number of members of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) are increasingly active in this space, in particular the University of Manchester, University of Sheffield and University of Leeds, as is the University of Derby (in the Global University Alliance, GUA).

A more specific set of courses is at the University of Portsmouth (Technology Extended Campus), some in conjunction with Pearsons (the publishers).


In Scotland, Scottish Knowledge has closed down but there was until a year ago growing activity at its partial successor, the Interactive University - now closed, based largely round [[Heriot-Watt University. A number of other Scottish Universities are also active, perhaps with Robert Gordon University (Virtual Campus) and Edinburgh Napier University (post graduate provision) in the lead.


In Wales, the University of Glamorgan (a member of GUA) is a leading player, as is the corporate University of Wales which accredits a number of online learning courses delivered by commercial entities.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the University of Ulster (Campus One) is the leading player.

Distance learning

In addition to the initiatives described above, there are many smaller initiatives, often focussed on distance learning - but nowadays with significant aspects of e-learning. See United Kingdom - distance learning for a partial list.


Eurydice National system overview on education systems in Europe, November 2011

Eurybase, The Information Database on Education Systems in Europe: The Education System in the United Kingdom - England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 2009/10

Recent reports (last 8 years)

Bacsich, P. (2017), Credit Transfer for Open/Online Graduate Programs: Annex 3 United Kingdom, Report for Thompson Rivers University, September 2017, Media:PLAR Masters benchmark Annex 3 United Kingdom.pdf

>>> Entities in the United Kingdom

> Countries

For OER policies and projects in United Kingdom see United Kingdom/OER