The University for Industry is a brave experiment, but it is one that has to succeed if the Government is to create the lifelong learning culture it believes Britain needs to remain economically prosperous in the next century.
Given that the venture will commence in the first year of the new millennium, it is fitting that new technology is fundamental to its operations. However, the UFI will not be a virtual operation. Its public face will be a national network of 1,000 learning centres. One hundred will be up and running when the UFI becomes fully operational in Autumn next year.
Ten centres will be attached to 100 learning centre "hubs", which Bob Fryer, the UFI's director of distributed learning, says will play a very important role by administering and supporting the attached centres.
The centres could be located in conventional sites such as workplaces and libraries, but also football clubs, funfairs, pubs, cybercafes and supermarkets. The idea is to give learners - mostly adults - the option of learning in a centre, at work or at home.
Fryer says learners will also have a choice about the style of learning and stresses that it is both distributed, as well as distance, learning. He says the online learning environment is a key feature and the UFI will be working towards creating a distinctive mode of delivery. "It's extremely important that we get the design right so that the bandwidths are appropriate for the sophistication of the material, and to enable learners themselves to interact with the learning materials, learning support workers and their own learning log."
The UFI is now in the process of identifying suitable learning materials. Last month, 150 organisations were invited to submit both digital and traditional forms of open and distance learning materials. Fryer says some existing materials will be used, but others will be improved or developed as necessary.
The first batch, which will be trialled in learning centres in the run-up to the launch, covers the UFI's priority areas: information and communications technology, basic literacy and numeracy, skills for small and medium-sized businesses and four business sectors.
The UFI will also work closely with further and higher education institutions and private learning providers. In Fryer's view, it will not be an alternative provider but a partner that not just diversifies provision but also expands demand.
He dismisses a claim made in a recent paper by Leicester University academic Marlene Morrison that the UFI's ability to offer education more cheaply, because of its "potential to reduce the ratio of person-to-person dialogue between students, teachers and peers", could threaten some further education colleges. Fryer says there is no question of the new venture supplanting colleges, but admits there are financial and standards issues to be resolved if the partnership is to work properly. "It is a radical concept, but it will only work if we work successfully with these partners."
By 2002, the UFI aims to provide information and advice through the Learning Direct phoneline to 2.5 million people a year and create demand for up to one million courses and learning packages by 2004. Fryer admits it will be a challenge to win over the "substantial proportion" of adults that is not involved and is not interested in systematic learning. Simply providing an alternative to existing provision will not be enough, he says.
The use of technology will help to overcome some of the barriers to learning, such as accessibility and child care, as learners will be able to study at home. Online learning support from the website will also be available to compliment the face-to-face help on offer at hubs and some learning centres.
As well as the UFI centres, 700 ICT Learning Centres are being set up to help modernise the skills of the workforce and raise school standards. The initiative starts next year and will focus on adults and small business in disadvantaged communities.
The centres are intended to help bridge the gap between the computer "haves and have-nots" and could be found in village halls, mobile libraries or computer centres. Yet another government scheme will see 85 City Learning Centres established in schools in disadvantaged urban areas under the Excellence in Cities programme.
Technology such as the Internet and digital television make it possible to contemplate a venture that is the UFI, but only time will tell whether it can help to overcome the other problems inherent in turning Britain into a nation of lifelong learners.
University for Industry
Tel: 0800 100 900