OPINION: Should the BBC use licence-fee money for a digital curriculum?

Yet another row is brewing in time for Christmas over the scale and

nature of the BBC's involvement in commercial markets. This time the

battle is over educational software and the extent to which the BBC

should be allowed to use licence-fee money to set up a learning

management system and develop content for it.



Naturally the prime minister is determined to have a digital curriculum,

whether the schools on the receiving end have computers or not.



The move to a digital curriculum sounds like a big, bold, modernistic

plan. So you can be sure we are going to have one. Already funds have

been moved away from making conventional educational programmes even

though educational broadcasting would be perfectly serviceable and

probably more practical for many more years.



The real issue is what sort of market it will create and how open it is

going to be for private sector educational publishers. The details are

still sketchy, but private firms fear the worst.



Apparently the plan is for the BBC to spend as much as £140m a

year on creating electronic educational software, to be provided free to

schools.



To even things up a bit, the government, through the Department for

Education and Skills, is going to make around £80m worth of

funding available to schools in the form of electronic credits.



A host of questions are already forming in the minds of educational

publishers.



Will the funds they receive be enough to create a market or will the BBC

be able to dominate the electronic curriculum? How long will the funds

for the private sector be guaranteed? And will the private producers be

guaranteed fair and non-discriminatory access to the BBC portal?



It all sounds very reminiscent of the battle for the new BBC digital

services, which will turn out to be a 100% victory for the BBC. You can

be absolutely certain that BBC 3 will be approved in March and launched

in June.



The electronic curriculum debate may not be as high profile as the

creation of digital services, but the issues are just as important.



European Union rules do allow state aid, but only if it does not affect

trading conditions and competition to the extent that would be "contrary

to the common interest".



The BBC may have to demonstrate that this plan does not amount to

effective dominance that would so disadvantage private publishers they

might as well be excluded from the market.



All is not yet lost. The plan needs the Department of Culture, Media and

Sport's approval before the BBC goes ahead. We can be certain that there

will be a vigorous investigation. Then DCMS will give its approval.



After that it could be a prosperous 2002 for lawyers specialising in EU

competition law.



Presumably none of those involved, least of all the politicians, will

ponder the evidence that pupils learn more effectively from good

old-fashioned books than all the latest gee-whizz devices.



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