Online degree units to cut tuition fees
A UK online university network is claiming a "breakthrough moment" with a project which will allow students to cut the cost of a Russell Group degree by studying part of it online.
A Futurelearn online course will provide credits towards a University of Leeds undergraduate degree.
It will mean reducing the time and cost of tuition fees for a full degree.
Futurelearn chairman Peter Horrocks says this will provide the flexibility needed by many students.
The online learning platform, which offers courses from more than 50 universities, was set up in 2013 by the Open University, as a UK provider for so-called Moocs (massive, open, online courses).
There are 3.7 million students registered for Futurelearn's online courses, but Mr Horrocks says that this latest development represents a "really significant step".
It will allow students to take a University of Leeds online course in Environmental Challenges and, if they pass an exam, to gain credits towards a geography degree at Leeds.
Students wanting to take an exam and gain credits this way will have to pay £545, but it will lead to a discount of £750 on tuition fees for a full degree.
The course will be taught from September and will represent 10 credits, with a full year being 120 credits.
Mr Horrocks, who is the Open University's vice chancellor, says this is an important move towards a more flexible degree system, making university courses more "cost effective and time effective".
He says it provides an answer to the government's recent White Paper on higher education, which called for more flexible and competitive ways of delivering degree courses.
The partnership with Leeds is expected to be followed by a number of other universities.
Mr Horrocks says that it creates an alternative path with "real quality and credibility" which could help more part-time students to improve their qualifications.
The traditional three-year, residential university system would not disappear, he said, but for many people that remained "too conventional, too inflexible, too locked down".
But he said that cost remained a barrier to part-time learning. In England, he said, there is "still a fall out from the tuition fees increase".
Universities should see online learning as a way to extend the reach of their research and scholarship.
"A digital platform is the purest form of an ideas marketplace. If you've got the greatest ideas, why wouldn't you want to be on an open platform where your learning can create great social, cultural and economic benefits?"
Simon Nelson, Futurelearn's chief executive, says the technology and quality of online learning has been rapidly improving and that the impact of digital technology on education was accelerating.
"Universities are looking at a world that is going more digital, more quickly than they are comfortable with - and they are having to think about their digital strategy," said Mr Nelson.
Neil Morris, director of digital learning at the University of Leeds, said this was a step towards a more "pick and mix" style of higher education, in which students could have a much more customised approach to learning.
Prof Morris said that it could lead to students putting together their own degree courses, studying different units from different universities and mixing online learning with residential courses.