University Leads with Free Access to Online Education; with the Cost of a Degree Rising to Up to PS27,000, Free Higher Education Now Seems like an Alien Concept. but Now Cardiff University Is One of a Number of British Institutions Pioneering Free Online Access to Higher Education. Darren Devine Reports

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AT THE end of the 1980s, when the former Tory education minister Kenneth Baker wanted to expand the numbers going to university without increasing the burden on the state, there was only one way to do it.

Ditch a cherished principle at the heart of post-war education policy - free higher education.

Students would be offered loans instead of grants and Baker's idea would lay the groundwork for the tuition-fees model of universities we have today.

But in the age of the internet when information has never been more freely available, how viable is it to make people pay to learn? Now, following the example of leading US universities like Stanford and Harvard, Cardiff University and other British institutions are opening up access to their courses online.

Through FutureLearn Ltd, a new company being set up by Open University (OU), prospective students will be able to view lectures online as an introduction to higher education. The move is far from a return to free higher education - anyone who watches the material and then decides they want to do a formal course will have to pay.

But it at least shows that in the days of the PS27,000 degree course students can get a taste of what lies ahead before making a massive financial commitment.

Professor Patricia Price, Cardiff University's pro-vice chancellor for student experience and academic standards, said: "You would make it clear what is actually available online.

"So you might say here's a course on justice - here's a set of 10 lectures and that's the package that's free.

"And it maybe that that is fine for people and they don't want any more or some might think, 'I'd like to get something out of this and do things in a slightly more in-depth way than just listening to somebody speak about it'.

"It wouldn't be a whole degree programme. It would be, 'Here are some bits on a topic'."

It's hoped the move will increase accessibility to higher education for students across the UK and rest of the world.

The move will draw on the OU's expertise in delivering distance learning. …