Tough selling techniques like those used by insurance firms and telephone sales groups have proved successful in recruiting school failures, drop-outs and disadvantaged adults back to study.
Recruitment methods used to test-run the Government's planned University for Industry (UFI) work as well with people from the most affluent and the most disadvantaged areas, first results of the scheme revealed this week.
Mailshots, mass-leafleting, targeted advertising and "cold-calling" were all far more effective than the traditional college recruitment methods such as advertising on buses, the pilot shows. It was run jointly by the Institute of Public Policy Research and Sunderland University, with private backing.
The university was the brainchild of the IPPR, a centre-left think tank, and Chancellor Gordon Brown, when Labour was still in opposition. It was conceived as a distance-learning network to provide cost-effective training for staff of small companies and for people who are not attracted by traditional school and college settings.
Despite the success in reaching individuals, the pilot failed to reach staff in small businesses. Small and medium enterprises were hard to engage, the IPPR admits.
The project confirmed the problems of reaching owner-managers andor employees which have dogged repeated efforts of successive governments to raise the skills of Britain's workforce.
But the institute insists there is enough evidence of success in individual recruitment to develop the UFI further.
Recruits to the pilot were offered free "taster courses" such as "IT for the Terrified" which they learned in familiar settings at their own pace, with specially-trained tutor support. These succeeded in encouraging people to pay for more intensive ones.
By June this year, 6,034 students from Tyne and Wear and rural Northumberland had signed up. Two-thirds had registered for IT taster courses. More than one in five were recruited via the Internet.
The project ran from the end of September 1997 to July this year to test the effectiveness of the UFI as a "learning broker". It gave individuals a one-stop-shop for education and training via the Internet, a freephone service and a network of 35 learning centres in traditional and informal settings. Centres ranged from FE colleges to Sunderland football stadium and local pubs.
Nick Pearce, senior research fellow at the IPPR, said that the bite-size taster courses got people started - they acted as "hooks" for learners. Direct access to learning information worked best when databases are automatically updated by providers themselves. An even spread of learners across different postcode areas indicated the success of the methods in reaching disadvantaged communities, he added.
"This was a rare example of a think-tank idea put into practice. It worked because of innovative leadership and genuine partnership. A lot was achieved with limited resources. It offers valuable lessons to the national UFI."
But the project manager, Helen Milner, gave a clear warning to Government on the dangers of under-funding the UFI: "The project was a huge success for innovation in lifelong learning. It ran on a shoestring budget but achieved great results. It showed that the hard sell can get people learning."
FROM THE DOLE QUEUE TO A BETTER JOB
Formerly unemployed Sandra Greenwood gained new skills and found a job through the University for Industry pilot.
She had been forced to leave her previous job with Gateshead council through ill health four years ago. She learned about the UFI free taster in telephone skills from a friend.
"The taster gave me a good insight into what work at a call centre would be like, and also improved my telephone skills. The next step was to get a job, so I went back to the UFI and followed a short course on filling in job applications. This gave me practical help in completing CVs and writing applications.
"It must have worked because I am now working for SLL at Doxford International Sunderland as a call centre operator."