Students from the UK and around the world are to get free access to courses from some of the country’s top universities thanks to an initiative from the Open University.

The Futurelearn company has been launched by The Open University (OU) with the backing of the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick.

Futurelearn will be independent but majority-owned by the OU, and will bring together a range of free, open, online courses from the universities, drawing on the OU’s expertise in delivering distance learning.

Futurelearn has been welcomed by the UK government. Minister for universities and science David Willetts said, "Futurelearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education."

Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said: "Each year we teach around 250,000 registered students, with literally millions of others accessing our free, informal, online offerings.

"Futurelearn will take this heritage and work with some of Britain’s best-known universities to write the next chapter in the story of British higher education.”

The OU has hired BBC Online architect Simon Nelson to head up Futurelearn as launch CEO. Nelson spent 14 years at the BBC where he helped set up iPlayer and its forerunner Radio Player, and led all digital activities, initially for its radio division and then across all television content.

Nelson said,“There has been rapid and widespread growth in open online courses but until now UK universities have only had the option of working with US-based platforms.

"Futurelearn will aim to bring together the leading UK universities to create a combined and coherent offer for students in the UK and internationally."

Futurelearn will announce further details of its structure and courses early in the New Year.

Earlier this year the Open University (OU) launched a postgraduate certificate in IT service management to help address the IT skills gap.