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Learners by the million;FE Focus

Ministers pledge the University for Industry will change the way we study. Ngaio Crequer reports

A MILLION courses a year, provided by a network of 1,000 learning centres throughout the country will be provided by the University for Industry, ministers said this week.

The UFI, the flagship initiative for lifelong learning, will be launched nationally next autumn, and will develop new ways for people to get information, advice and learning packages that suit them and the operational needs of their businesses.

As well as the million courses, a further 2.5 million people are expected to seek advice and information - ranging from basic literacy or numeracy needs to acquiring advanced business skills. The intention, said ministers, was to change the way people learn.

They will be able to use the UFI through a new website, over an enhanced Learning Direct helpline, or through the network of learning centres. These will vary in size and location: they will be in obvious venues such as universities, colleges, schools and libraries, but also on housing estates, in shopping centres, football clubs and shops.

"We want to put the learning centres in locations easily accessible to people," said Dr Anne Wright, the chief executive, at yesterday's launch of the UFI development plan. "We are going to put learners first, and we know that the time and place for learners is very important to them."

The UFI has made a seven-point pledge, the first of which is a promise to offer the time, place, pace and style of learning which responds to each individual's needs.

All the learning centres, which will be owned and operated by local providers, will have to guarantee minimum service levels including access to online and multimedia technologies, opening hours suited to learners' needs, personal and technical support for learners, and arrangements for customer feedback.

The UFI has already shown it is responding to its customers by recognising that the name is wrong. Although David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, has long insisted the name should stay, market research has shown that very few people know what it means. It has been pointed out that the UFI is not a university - it will not offer courses itself or employ lecturers - and has nothing to do with industry.

"We found that the name UFI did not reach out to the people we are trying to reach," said Dr Wright. "We are currently researching a new consumer brand that will be used in our marketing efforts." A new name is likely to be supplied in May.

Research had also shown that even though 60 per cent of adults have had no vocational training in the past three years, 75 per cent are either keen to learn or would do so if some of the current barriers were removed. Of those interested in learning, more than 90 per cent of people would consider using information and communication technology to learn.

David Blunkett said funds for the UFI would rise to pound;44 million in its first year. His objective was to reduce the proportion of adults over 16 who have had no training or education over the past three years by 23 per cent - half a million.

The UFI will be an independent institution, although the Government will be the major stakeholder. It is expected to develop non-governmental sources of income.

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