Universities are missing out on the chance to use technology to provide more distance learning opportunities to the growing number of applicants, according to Virgin Media Business.

UCAS, the university admissions service, reported that applications to undergraduate courses at universities in the UK grew to 660,000 this year, up 11 percent from last year. Many universities also declared themselves full before A-level results were even announced.

After carrying out a study of the flexible learning capabilities of the Russell Group universities, which represents the UK’s top 20 research universities, Virgin Media Business found that while 70 percent of the universities give postgraduates the opportunity to study off campus, only 40 percent offer distance learning for undergraduates.

It also found that all 20 universities said that course material, including lecture recordings, video and other educational media, can be accessed online. For example, the University of Nottingham has enabled undergraduate veterinary students to watch live surgeries and lectures off-campus via a remote access network.

Lee Hull, director of public sector at Virgin Media Business, said: “A record number of school leavers are expected to miss out on a place at university this year, simply because there’s not enough room.

“With this high level of demand for a university education, top academic institutions can capitalise on their existing efforts to provide education online and explore the opportunities that lie within distance learning.”

According to Gerry Arthurs, head of public sector south at Virgin Media Business, there is a range of technologies that universities could exploit, including webinar software, to allow lecturers to deliver lectures remotely and also allow students to interact with one another, and telepresence technology.

Arthurs said that forums and message boards, as well as intranet-based IM services, can also encourage students to interact as much as possible.

“It’s not just about the right technology though,” said Arthurs. “It’s essential that universities adopting remote learning put in place policies that ensure regular contact between lecturers and students. Complementing remote learning with a periodic lecture or seminar in a central location where students can be there in person can also be of benefit.”

In addition, Arthurs believes that enough demand exists for universities to invest in educational technologies to enable more distance learning.

“The average undergraduate comes out of university with over £20,000 of debt. This makes it potentially unaffordable for some people looking to gain higher education. By providing students with the facility to learn from home, universities will be reducing the financial barrier, encouraging more people to gain higher education.

“Remote learning could also enable some courses to be delivered more efficiently and so reduce the time it takes to gain a qualification without jeopardising the quality of education received.”

He added: “With people from a wider range of age groups taking undergraduate courses, widening remote access will help these students remain in work or with their families whilst they learn.”

However, the University and College Union, UCU, warned that delivering distance learning courses should not be driven by cost-cutting strategies.

“Flexible routes to learning are important and many of our members do fantastic work through online and distance learning, said Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary.

“It is important, however, that these courses are not simply seen as a way of cutting costs or delivering education on the cheap. We must not create a two-tier system where wealthy students can pick and choose what and where to study while others are resigned to cheaper courses.”