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HEFCE closed at the end of March 2018. The information on this website is historical and is no longer maintained.

Many of HEFCE's functions will be continued by the Office for Students, the new regulator of higher education in England, and Research England, the new council within UK Research and Innovation.

The HEFCE domain - - will continue to function until September 2018. At this point we will close the site entirely and all its information will only be available from the National Web Archive.


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  1. Introduction by Dame Lynne Brindley, Online Learning Task Force Chair
  2. Summary of recommendations
  3. Student diversity, demand and expectations
  4. UK competitiveness
  5. Strategy, processes, culture
  6. Conclusion
  7. Annexes
  8. List of abbreviations

1. Introduction by Dame Lynne Brindley, Online Learning Task Force Chair

1.1. The Online Learning Task Force was established in mid-2009 by HEFCE, and was asked to address how UK higher education (HE) might maintain and extend its position as a world leader in online learning. It was also invited to consider international opportunities, ways to encourage flexibility in UK provision, online pedagogy, how to support institutions to take full advantage of rapidly developing technology and rich sources of content, and to ensure quality provision to meet rapidly changing student demands.

1.2. The Task Force has concluded that online learning – however blended with on- or off-campus interactions, whether delivered in the UK or overseas – provides real opportunity for UK institutions to develop responsive, engaging and interactive provision which, if offered at scale, can deliver quality and cost-effectiveness and meet student demands for flexible learning.

1.3. The recent Comprehensive Spending Review, the Browne reportsee note 1 and the forthcoming White Paper give a new and even more challenging context to the work of the Task Force. The pressures of severe constraints on public spending, and a shift towards a more de-regulated, market approach to higher education, combined with the increasing need to put student demand and choice at the centre of higher education provision, require radical thinking. These factors are creating new dynamics in the higher education system and gave added impetus to our work.

1.4. Technological change is rapid. Developing and adopting appropriate pedagogy for its exploitation in learning and teaching is less rapid, and the skills and organisational changes that are needed alongside this take even longer. Online learning thus presents challenges on many fronts. At the same time, current and future generations of students expect high-quality, flexible online learning experiences.

1.5. The Task Force comprised experts from the academic sector and a number of private sector technology and content companies. We listened closely to student voices and to potential students; we consulted widely with sector bodies, private online learning and content providers, and employers. We commissioned short reports and held a major seminar 'What next for online learning?' to cross-check our thinking with a wide range of experts. We have collated and shared examples of good practice and success; we have extracted lessons from past ventures. We discovered that reliable baseline data is scarce, and even definitions of what constitutes online learning are unclear.

1.6. I would like to thank all those who contributed their expertise, views, experience and time to our endeavour, as well as all the members and officers of the Task Force for their valuable and impressive contributions. It has been a challenging pleasure to work with them over the past year. We drew on Professor Sir Ron Cooke's important report on 'Online Innovation in Higher Education'see note 2 which still remains relevant, and we were ever mindful that this country set a world standard for distance learning by establishing, some 40 years ago, the Open University.

1.7. The Task Force discussions have been robust and always lively. We shared a broad sense of direction, but members held differing views about the urgency of change, the relative importance of on-site and online offerings, the strength of competitive challenges and need for organisational change – reflecting the diversity of the higher education sector, and institutional missions and strategies.

1.8. At all times we aimed to put the rapidly changing demands of students in higher education, and potential students currently studying in schools, at the centre of our thinking. We also considered, among others, older students, part-time learners and those living outside the UK.

1.9. This report documents successful and diverse case studies of institutional and consortia provision, including partnerships between HE institutions and the private sector. These case studies deserve careful study across the higher education sector as each institution considers its strategic options for the next five to ten years. But the report can only give a flavour of the exciting possibilities: each case study in Annex 3 shows a wealth of imaginative offerings that point us towards an even more exciting future.

1.10. The international market for online learning is growing rapidly although estimating its size remains a challenge. While UK higher education institutions are extremely successful in attracting international students to study in the UK there are also opportunities for growth in online and more flexible patterns of provision which combine UK and home country study; online, blended and on-campus UK experience. However, universities in many countries are strong competitors to the UK for these markets, and private sector providers are moving in quickly and aggressively. Similar opportunities for enhanced flexibility apply within the UK as students seek more work-based, flexible and part-time opportunities, to fit work and learning opportunities into their lives. 'Going to university' will take on many, varied meanings and manifestations over the next ten years.

1.11. We want this report to count. We hope it will make an important contribution to moving online learning up the strategic agenda for policy makers and for universities and colleges. There are both opportunities and imperatives for full engagement with this agenda. Several matters we highlight are not new, but they acquire added urgency as we look at the changing face of higher education domestically and globally. It is important for the UK to fulfil rapidly changing student demand and to exploit the opportunities afforded by today's web-based technologies to change our thinking and to innovate faster. We want to grow the UK's share of expanding markets internationally and contribute to the national economy, sustaining the competitiveness and reputation of UK higher education both at home and across the globe.

1.12. The HE sector has been talking about the potential of online learning for well over ten years. The moment has come if we wish to remain and grow as a major international player in higher education. This report offers some of the ways towards achieving our goals.


  1. The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, led by Lord Browne, was tasked with making recommendations to Government on the future of fees policy and financial support for undergraduate and postgraduate students. Its final report, 'Securing a sustainable future for higher education in England' (October 2010), is available.
  2. This was written as a contribution to the debate launched in 2008 by John Denham, then Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which eventually led to the publication of the 'Higher Ambitions' framework for higher education in 2009. It can be downloaded from (accessed 3 November 2010).