1. There is confusion, both in academic circles and the public more generally, about the definition of a virtual university. Hence in considering such an option, it is worth looking more fundamentally at the contexts for higher education, and the functions of a National Virtual University equipped to meet the needs of the 21st Century.
2. The increase in the use of ICT has caused a radical increase in demand for higher education globally, and increased access to higher education via the use of ICT. New suppliers in the form of private and corporate universities, now compete with universities in their home countries, and increasingly, overseas.
3. Although demands for higher education are growing rapidly, analysis of the new and changing demands on universities at local, national and international levels, within an increasingly global knowledge market, indicates that the role of a National Virtual University will be much broader than that of an existing university. Moreover, a NVU will need to successfully compete in an environment which is growing in competitiveness and complexity as corporate universities start to operate, but will have to do so with greater efficiency and lower funding.
4. The socio-economic environment in Finland is characterised by an internationally high (and growing) involvement with information and communication technologies in all spheres of life. Within this fast developing Information Society, there is a high need for increasing skills levels and retraining, especially with respect to ICT. However, like elsewhere in Europe, the use of technology for collaborative teaching in Universities and for promoting joint research with industry, is comparatively underexploited, although the existing higher education platform, provides a useful structure which could adapt to, and benefit from, the establishment of a National Virtual University.
5. The rationale for incorporating the use of new technologies in higher education by building a National Virtual University is well-established. Such a development would require a quantum leap in the design and development of a new learning method. However, in addition to educational benefits, the NVU would aid the creation of a knowledge based economy, the promotion of social cohesion, the protection of the existing Finnish university system, and the preservation of national language and culture.
6. The experience of previous virtual university ventures in the USA demonstrates that collaborative ventures, based on existing providers and reliant on reengineering of existing teaching and learning practices, are unlikely to be successful, even where they are well financed. A National Virtual University can be constructed with varying degrees of functionality, but where it covers all ranges of university activities (teaching, research and technology transfer), and is well-linked to the local community, the cost of development will be high but the returns on expenditure will be greatest.
7. A project of this size, complexity, cost and importance will only succeed in maximising its potential as a collaborative venture, if it involves all stakeholder groups in discussing its form, as consensus on the form of the NVU will be critical in ensuring the success of its implementation.