Willetts urges UK universities to put courses online
UK universities should invest in online courses if they are to take advantage of an "historic opportunity", said Universities Minister David Willetts.
Countries such as India and Indonesia have a soaring demand for university courses - creating a market for the UK's universities, says Mr Willetts.
But he argued that the scale of demand would need to be met by online courses as well as campus universities.
Online universities were going to be "very significant," he said.
Mr Willetts, speaking at the Guardian Higher Education Summit, told university leaders that online universities were going to be an important part of the global expansion in student numbers.
The minister described as "astounding" the likely rise in demand in Asian countries for university places, driven by demographic and economic changes.
But he questioned whether the "classic model" of a traditional campus university would be able to respond to such a "huge appetite" for higher education.
Online universities were no longer going to be seen as an "alternative", outside of the mainstream, he argued.
"Online learning is going to be a big thing, very significant, when you look at the hunger for higher education," he told the conference, held at the University of London.
The online university market is currently dominated by networks set up by leading universities in the United States.
Coursera, set up by Stanford academics, and edX, set up by Harvard and MIT, have registered more than 3.5 million students within a year of launching.
These have already set up partnerships with universities in Asia and Europe as well as in the United States.
There are also universities offering courses both through Coursera and edX.
They have also taken the first steps towards arranging for these online course units to count towards full university degrees.
In the UK, the Futurelearn consortium of 18 institutions, headed by the Open University, has announced plans to offer online courses from later this year.
Such courses are intended to be cheaper and more flexible than conventional, campus-based degrees, bringing higher education to a wider range of people.
And the conference also heard about measures to maintain access to the UK's universities, from Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access.
Prof Ebdon said that there were proposals for a national strategy for access, which would co-ordinate efforts across the education sector, funding councils and government, with details expected later this year.