The Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth: 
What is it for? How is it doing? Where is it going?

Sir John Daniel & Paul West 
Commonwealth of Learning

What is it for?

The proposal for the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC) that was presented to Ministers in 2003 (COL, 2003) contained the following statement:

'The vision that emerged for a virtual university serving small states was one of a consortium of institutions, enabled by appropriate ICT applications, working together in practical ways to plan programmes, develop the required content and ensure the delivery of those programmes and support services to learners.'

It also included the sentence:

'The virtual university will be as much concerned with adding value to conventional on-campus instruction as it is with serving learners at a distance.'

And it also noted that a virtual university could benefit small states by:

'Providing accreditation systems to develop quality standards and ensure that they are met'.

The overriding objective for the VUSSC that emerges from the original proposal to ministers is that it should help institutions in the small states to serve learners better.


How is it doing?

The manner in which the VUSSC has developed has been significantly different from that envisaged in the original proposal, which called for the expenditure of $20 million over the first five years. In the event, although ministers approved the proposal, funds on this scale were simply not forthcoming.

In fact total expenditure to date has been about $2 million. That includes all out-of-pocket costs for travel, etc. and an estimate of the salary costs of those who have attended the various VUSSC events. It does not include salary and overhead costs for COL because supporting the VUUSC is part of its normal business.

We are grateful to the Hewlett Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation and the Government of Singapore for defraying many of the out-of-pocket costs.

The VUSSC is a shoestring operation, because there isn't much money. It is also a bootstrap operation because we've built it from the bottom up. Contrary to what the proposal called for, COL did not set up a special unit - nor has it created special nodes for the VUSSC or set up standing committees. We did not think such expenditures would have been useful.

Instead, we have organised the work around two principles. First, in order to remain close to the thinking of ministers of education, whose initiative this is, we created the function of 'interlocutors', usually ministry officials who can speak for their countries in planning meetings.

Second, since the overall aim of the VUSSC is the development of learning materials that can be studied by real students in real institutions leading to real qualifications; we identified the role of 'implementer'. These are people, usually in tertiary institutions, who are involved in the teaching/learning process. Those who attend the course development workshops are mostly implementers.

The identification of implementers has been very pragmatic. Ministers identified a number of subject areas in which they wanted the VUSCC to develop materials. When we hold a workshop to develop content in one of those areas, such as in Disaster Management at the recent event in Samoa, we ask all countries whether they are interested in taking part. Countries that decide to join in identify a specialist in the subject matter from their most appropriate institution. We have been extremely impressed by the expertise and quality of many of the people who have come.

You could say that in order to get materials created we have focused on subjects and individuals rather than institutions. Instead of a consortium of institutions the VUSSC has been a network of ministries of education identifying the individuals needed to get the work done. There is nothing wrong with that. It is interesting to look back over the VUSSC meetings held so far and to see who has attended.

So far, aside from a meeting on a Transnational Qualifications Framework (TQF), we have held three planning meetings, two in Singapore and one in Jamaica, and five course development workshops that we used to call 'boot camps' because one of their functions is to provide basic training in IT skills for online collaboration.

A first workshop for developing materials in Tourism, Hospitality and Entrepreneurship was held in Mauritius in 2006. Last year we held three more of them: in Singapore for Professional Development of Educators; in Trinidad & Tobago for Life Skills; and in Samoa for Disaster Management. In 2008 Seychelles will host a workshop on Fisheries and there will be another on Construction in the Bahamas. We express our warm thanks to all the countries that have hosted these events.

Figure 1 gives the overall picture. The three planning meetings and the TQF meeting have involved 132 people, nearly 60% of them from government ministries or agencies. 87 people have attended the course development workshops and most of them, over 70% are from institutions. This balance, with more ministry officials and interlocutors at the planning meetings and more institutional implementers at the course development workshops is what we would have expected. We are surprised that the proportion from institutions at the course development events was not even higher, but we realise that in small states some people wear two hats and can represent the ministry of education and in institution at the same time. If you put all the events together you have 48% of participation from institutions, 46% from government and 6% from other bodies.

Figure 1


Which countries have shown most interest in the VUSSC? Figure 2 lists the countries with the highest level of total participation in terms of person-meetings. For example, across all the events the VUSSC has held, 21 places were taken by Trinidad & Tobago, though of course in some cases the same person attended more than one meeting. This table shows a nice spread around the Commonwealth regions and the smallest state, Tuvalu, is right up there.

Figure 2


Who attended these events? Figure 3 ranks countries by the number of person-events involving ministry of education officials. There are similarities and differences with the previous table. For example, Namibia was number 3 in overall participation but since nearly all its participants were from institutions it doesn't figure in this table. The same goes for Botswana.

Figure 3


Next, which countries sent most people from institutions? Figure 4 ranks the top countries by their institutional attendance. Again there is a nice spread. A total of 46 institutions from the small states have been represented at one or other of the VUSSC events. Mauritius spread the experience most widely with five institutions involved, followed by Lesotho with four.

Figure 4


Figure 5 looks at individual institutions. Which are the institutions that have attended VUSSC events most assiduously? Again there is a nice spread with the University of Swaziland at the top but also key institutions in smaller countries like St. Vincent & the Grenadines and St. Kitts and Nevis also taking advantage of these opportunities.

Figure 5


The surprise, if you compare this with the original proposal, is to find that the two regional universities have not participated much in the VUSSC. The University of the West Indies was only involved in three events and the University of the South Pacific has not taken part at all. Maybe the lesson for the future is that the VUSSC has most to offer to the smaller small states that do not have a well-developed tertiary sector.


Where is it going?

So where is the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth going? What are the next steps to take?


Status and Structure

Let us start with what the VUSSC is not and will not become. Despite its name, chosen by the Ministers in 2000, the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth is not a university in any normally accepted sense of the term. It is not a body that teaches programmes to students and awards degrees. Nor will the VUSSC become a university in that sense. One reason is that the authority to grant degree-awarding powers rests with national governments, not with intergovernmental bodies like COL or UNESCO. Another is that ministers have made it clear that they want the VUSSC to reinforce the impact of their existing tertiary institutions, not to compete with them.

If that is what the VUSSC is not, what is it now? It is essentially an informal network of ministries of education and public tertiary institutions supported by the part-time efforts of a number of people at the Commonwealth of Learning. We believe that approach has served us rather well to date and has produced creditable outputs given the small investment of money.

But should the VUSSC now develop from being an informal network towards the more formal 'consortium of institutions' that the minsters envisioned in the original proposal? Meetings of ministry interlocutors are important, but we need to strengthen the involvement of the institutions that are actually developing and using the VUSSC eLearning materials.

It would probably not have been efficient to stress the notion of consortium earlier because what counts is the intensity of an institution's involvement with the VUSSC. Consortia are most effective when their members have a real stake in the outcome of the consortium's work. Only experience could show us which institutions are most engaged with the VUSSC. Figure 5 indicates the institutions that have become most involved with the VUSSC. What we don't know, and what we must find out, is how much effect this engagement has had on teaching and learning in these institutions.

The future we see in the coming year is that a portal or hub will be created for VUSSC that will provide access to online programmes offered by accredited institutions in VUSSC countries. These institutions, having already received accreditation from their national system will be able to promote selected programmes to the international market, through the VUSSC portal. Clients will register for these programmes with the knowledge that programmes offered through the portal will carry the national accreditation of the country in which the providing institution is based. In addition to this, clients will be able to review the comparability of the qualification with their own country by reviewing the qualification's registration in the Transnational Qualification Framework.


Curriculum Expansion

Another preoccupation is how to expand and multiply the eLearning materials that the VUSSC can make available to countries and institutions. The model that we have used to date, that of the three-week face-to-face course development workshop, has served us well. Material has been produced, hundreds of people have acquired the IT skills required for work in the virtual world, and an inspiring sense of community has developed amongst educators from small states.

However, the three-week workshop model is not sustainable in the longer term because it is too expensive. There must come a point in the next few years when those countries that are committed to developing education and training in the e-world have built up the critical mass of skilled people to initiate the development of new subject areas without going through the boot-camp process.

Nor does the development of new subject areas mean developing all the material from scratch, Ministers were clear when they launched the VUSSC that, although they wanted to create an indigenous capacity to navigate in the e-world, their goal was not e-isolationism!

In the short time that we have been building up the VUSSC an effervescence of activity around the world has created an expanding volume of open educational resources in digital formats that are freely available for use. One of the skills that people have acquired at the workshops is the ability to track down these resources in Wikis and other learning object repositories and adapt them appropriately for use.

It would be useful to share experiences of using these open educational resources. Although we cannot continue holding course-development workshops at the rate of three a year, a key element of the ministers' vision was that the small states should continue to work together on the development, delivery and accreditation of courses.

More and more of this will be done by online collaboration rather than face-to-face workshops and COL is committed to facilitating this collaboration. Already COL is investing substantial effort in sustaining the online communication between countries that is required to complete the courses for which material began to be developed at the various workshops.


Course Delivery

Finally, member countries should pool their experience of the delivery of VUSSC course materials. We are in the early stages of using these materials but it is clear that they will be used in very diverse ways. In addition to our earlier quotation from the original VUSSC proposal about adding value to conventional on-campus instruction, variations in connectivity within states mean that distance learning will take place in a wide variety of ways. Pooling experience of what works and what does not will be most valuable.



These questions merit reflection. We believe that by following an informal, bottom-up approach ministers have obtained excellent value for the small investment that has been made in the VUSSC since 2003. The time has now come, however, to bring more system to the organisation of the VUSSC while continuing to develop it in a pragmatic way. Above all, it is time for each country to ask itself again what goals it intends to achieve through the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth and to put in place the local institutional arrangements necessary to see that it attains them.



COL (Commonwealth of Learning) (2003) A Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (for presentation to the 15 th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, Edinburgh 33pp.