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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.

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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.

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.

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