Good news for those with a thirst for knowledge

Top British universities are to offer free online courses to anyone who wants to learn. It’s a great idea, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

"Topple these barriers to our best universities" read a headline in the Observer last month. The piece then went on to bemoan the fact that the opportunities to be gained from higher education "remain heavily dependent on social background and schooling."

The problem, it pointed it out, is not that poorer children aren't going to university - the "massification" of higher education means that they are. It is that they aren't going to the best ones. Only one in five young people from "comprehensives and FE colleges" got into the top one third of universities in the UK this year. That compares with some 80% of those from private schools. Big gap.

The paper suggests that it leaves rather a lot of room open for "innovation and evaluation" from the universities. I'd say it leaves rather a lot of room for the state education system to pull itself together and just be better.

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But either way, some good news comes in this week's Sunday Times which announces that most of the UK's top universities are about to offer free e-courses' in much the same way as the top universities in the US do. Bristol, St Andrews and Exeter have all signed up to provide free remote access to all sorts of interesting courses; you can also join discussion groups and take exams online.

None of this yet means you will end up with a degree (that would rather undermine the £9,000 a year business model of the universities) but it is the obvious next step (courses could provide credits towards one, for example).

I don't think that this is the kind of thing that as one academic puts it will see universities going "the way of the dodo". But it is surely a start at toppling a few barriers. It all starts on 18 September, andyou can sign up here. I have.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.