Physical university estates cost a lot of money to run and maintain. A physical building is limited by how many students it can contain and therefore lacks scalability. The job market is becoming more transient.

Technological advancement is enabling flexible and cost effective ways of virtual learning. Tech populism and user adoption is changing learning cultures. Economic growth is moving east. So what to do, asks Steve Hipwell.

In response most universities have developed a virtual learning programme. These products are delivered via platforms usually known as virtual learning environments or VLE's. A university VLE should be a virtual estate that provides a complete learning experience via a browser. A VLE system which integrates all academic and administrative staff and student requirements is also often called an MLE, or managed learning environment.

Presently, in the main, VLE / MLE's are deployed as complimentary learning devices. A VLE is an added value product in a university’s toolkit of educational offerings. In the future, it is difficult to see how MLE's will not play a bigger part in many students' university experiences. The reasons are as follows:

Universities may be forced to cut their operational costs, especially if government funding is reduced because of economic conditions. Moving towards a virtual product could help sustain a viable business model.

Even if student numbers rise due to the higher education business being counter cyclical in a recession. Many may want to take advantage of the lower fees associated with web-based distance learning. Particularly, as mature students often want the academic qualification and not the traditional university experience.

For technology savvy students a university's VLE platform fits well as another educational tool. Students use social networking sites and other Web 2.0 type systems to work and socialise; university VLE's should marry seamlessly into this model.

An e-portfolio approach of an interchangeable and interoperable collection of electronic assets that the student manages is very now. This way of working reflects the change in focus from the enterprise dictating the technology and mode of operation to user-centric control. 

The combination of slowing western economic growth, likely sustained eastern economic expansion and advances in technology, will change investment cases. Therefore, it makes sense for UK universities to increasingly seek new emerging and frontier markets. Early market penetration and establishment of brands in these new and highly scalable markets may be best achieved via VLE / MLE's.

To back-up the argument for reaching new education markets, consider the following: According to figures published by the United Nations, Asia as a region in the year 2000 had a populous of 3,672 million people. Likewise, Africa had a populous of 794 million.

Behind these statistics are huge numbers of people that may aspire to and would greatly benefit from an education. For many, for now, the best they might achieve is a level of elementary learning. But in the future, as economic development increases in these markets, there should be an increase in custom for higher education. Some hedge funds are already buying up huge amounts of African agricultural land and China is also a big investor there.

From an ethical perspective, education for all is a good thing. The combined socioeconomic effects of education have been shown to increase per capita GDP and generally improve peoples' quality of life and their life chances. Virtual learning systems can help bridge some of the delivery problems in reaching the neediest.

Whether the system is termed a VLE or MLE, the product should be a complete educational and business process platform. The beauty of such an offering lies in its ability to reach any user that has internet access.

Economically, the capital outlay, scalability and time to market weigh dramatically in favour of virtual educational systems. From an administrative and pedagogic perspective, cultures often re-align towards economic imperatives. Ethically, those most in need can receive an education.

One thing is almost certain; universities will need to make some difficult value judgements in balancing investments between their virtual and physical estates. Influences in this decision making process might be that the UK has a mature higher education market, estates are costly to run and global growth is moving east.

Without the constraints of factoring in the political, cultural and regulatory considerations involved in reforming academic delivery mechanisms, the rude economics seem compelling for going more virtual.

There is a case to be made for concentrating on trying to grab more of the existing market share with high end brick and mortar facilities. But maybe its time that universities look with fresh eyes at the emerging brave new world and synchronise with its demands.