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Does the UFI spell hara-kiri for FE

The new learn-at-your-workplace university means we will have to pay a high price, says Graham Jones. Let's hope it's not the ultimate one

Further Education may be an old dog but it can still learn a new trick or two. We have spent decades trying to draw in students from all corners, but now it's trendy to leave them where they are and teach them by remote control. Rather like lions waiting for prey at the water-hole, FE now has to catch its students as they take their ease or refresh themselves. Lifestyle learning centres in pubs, shopping malls, leisure centres, bingo halls and massage parlours are the coming thing. Modern communications systems are apparently deemed robust and effective enough to solve many of the problems of widening participation.

I hope they are right. Communications in a single college are difficult enough. My management development session on communications at our place was half-empty last week because the staff had got the date wrong. But the University for Industry is pushing ahead with plans for fast-track learning centres as if its life depended on it - which it does. And so do ours.

Lifestyle learning centres can be almost anywhere, it seems, except in colleges. The UFI has made that very clear. The message is that visiting college is not part of the approved lifestyle. Perhaps it's because colleges are associated with old-fashioned things such as teaching and learning and qualifications and progression. Perhaps we in FE make it too clear that real learning requires some effort and commitment and that you might occasionally have to leave the pub to engage in it.

The first UFI centres have just opened, with more to come in March and September. There is still no clear idea what courses or learning programmes will be available, what the fee structure will be, whether the funding unit claims will stack up, where the tutors are to come from, who is in charge of marketing locally or whether any money is available for capital set-up. These minor operational issues will presumably be solved once the centres are working at the expense, if we are not careful, of the student enthusiasts and their lifelong attitude to learning.

Well, by all means let us chase new fashions and try anything that gets people learning, but don't ignore the warning bells that are clanging just about everywhere. For a start, the UFI is creatinga new learning orthodoxy from a set of untested beliefs and demanding that others build and pay for it. Good try, UFI. But the more we pay to support you, the less we have for others.

Second, technology and students do not always mix. Computers are perfectly capable of crashing without any help, but students are wonderfully adept at assisting the process. Given the latitude, they can introduce all manner of interesting variations into operating systems. The sector is not exactly technician-rich and the thought of providing dedicated support on-site for 40 or so computers, repeated endlessly across a rash of learning centres, renders college accountants apoplectic. On the other hand, peripatetic technical support is not much use if the machines crash when students have limited time, no teachers to fall back on and a technician two hours away. The management of the whole thing is problematic.

The UFI promises tutor support for many programmes. Who are these people? Where will they be based? Are they virtual or actual? No college will be able to support the high costs of a learning centre on UFI material alone. How will we make our own tutors available to service remote centres without sending the costs through the roof. How will we ensure the security? Just a sign that somebody was taking these problems seriously would be a help.

I promise I am not an old reactionary with worn-out notions of how human beings learn effectively. I know the social aspects of learning and the bond with a good teacher which we offer are not for everybody. I even know what an interface is. (It's a plug!). Have laptop, will travel. The UFI will work because FE will make it work.

If nothing else, you have to admire the UFI's cheek: our money, buildings, computers and programmes, our development time, technical support, supervision, security and running costs; but to the UFI, the income and the glory. Seems fair, especially when you consider that the model of learning we are replacing is the one on which FE is founded: the notion of a college, a convenient location for cost-effective learning, qualified staff on hand and a community of learners. All I am being asked to do is build my own gallows. Oh, and pay for the woodI And train the hangman. Come on, Fido, just one more blazing hoop to jump through.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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