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Contract worries delay set-up of UFI 'hubs'

JUST days before the University for Industry's learndirect operation is due to open fully for business many of the "hubs" that will run learning centres have still not signed their contracts.

Although today is the deadline for signing, a letter was circulated to college principals just 10 days ago seeking an urgent response on hub agreements following a meeting with ministers.

David Gibson, the Association of College's chief executive, has asked colleges whether they wanted the association to act as a broker for the sector, devising a generic contract.

Hubs are being run by colleges because only they can receive funding from the Further Education Funding Council.

The move is a response to the large number of requests for guidance on contracts between UFI and hubs. It indicates that many colleges have had serious concerns about them.

The AOC has given the university and the Department for Education and Employment a detailed list of contractual issues raised by the colleges. The association has also sought legal advice over the contract.

The letter to principals, from the association, stated that, according to the UFI, only a few contracts have been signed so far. None of the London hubs is believed to have signed yet.

There is no guidance on the status of hubs or learning centres if contracts are not signed by today. The project manager of one said that if hubs are not supposed to offer courses before contracts are signed, they would need urgent advice about what how o proceed.

Many colleges running hubs are worried that they face financial risks if they do not attract sufficient students, but more of a concern is the absence of guidance about audit regulations.

The fear is that their hubs will pass funding on to learning centres and later discover that they do not have the required data to claim back the cash from the funding council.

Another unresolved issue is over learndirect's charges to hubs for the on-line learning materials used by students. If costs are incurred from when a student first logs on, but he or she fails to finish the course, learning centres could again be short-changed, if funding is only awarded for completed courses.

The long list of points also includes concerns over funding flows, audit issues, quality of materials, the technology incloved, the ability of the system to track students performance, accreditation issues, staff development and learner support.

The UFI's hub project manager said the learndirect development phase should be extended to allow unresolved issues to be sorted out.

He also said that the relationship between UFI and individual learning accounts must be clarified: He said: "It is difficult to understand why individual learning accounts cannot be used to pay for learndirect courses."

In a letter in this week's TES (page 18) learning and technology minister Michael Wills said: "UFI is on course to deliver new learning opportunities to hundreds and thousands of new learners."

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