Learning World was set up by the University of Sunderland and Gateshead College at the Metro Centre and could play an important part in the pilot for the University for Industry, which is being launched this month in the North-east.
The centre offers adult education in a very different environment to the traditional image of a college.
Students can drop in on their way to the shops. It is open for more than 80 hours a week and many courses take advantage of new technology to ease distance learning.
More than 4,000 people have enrolled on courses run by Learning World since it opened in January 1996. Subjects taught range from basic computing to University of Sunderland MAs - offering a full progression in one institution.
The pilot of the UFI is being jointly run by senior staff at the University of Sunderland who helped develop Learning World and the left-of-centre think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research.
The scheme is expected to cost several hundred thousand pounds and is being funded by the university, the IPPR, local TECs, councils and businesses. It will target small and medium-sized companies, people who have not had any training since they left school, and women returners, in a major push to encourage post-16 education.
The UFI is to act as a co-ordinator, putting potential students and firms in touch with training providers. The organisers want to do this by setting up a series of centres such as Learning World in the community and in small- and medium-sized firms.
They hope centres in businesses could use advanced communication systems such as the Internet to give staff access to a much wider range of courses in the workplace, as in the internal "universities" run by firms such as Unipart.
Participation rates in the area are currently low. The percentage of 16 and 17-year-olds staying on at school or going to college is the lowest in England. And the percentage of 16 to 65-year-olds in FE is lower than the English average.
The pilot will aim to improve people's employability by encouraging the study of information technology, and developing a range of other skills.
The initiative developed from ideas put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who has called for a new type of public and private partnership to promote lifelong learning.
Senior IPPR research fellow Josh Hillman said: "There is a substantial need for employees to learn new skills and this will get worse because of changes in the labour market." He said the IPPR chose the North-east because of the low rates of participation in education and training and because of innovative schemes to broaden access.
He said: "There is untapped demand for education and training and we want to release that through new means.
"We feel that if the pilot works in an area with a low rate of participation we have proved our point although it is a brave decision." Outreach work would form a major part of the pilot, by trying to make a much wider group aware of what was on offer.
The scheme aims to get 5,000 more people to successfully complete modules on courses during the new academic year.
It will use a range of methods to market courses, including setting up a learning centre at Sunderland Football Club's new stadium. The IPPR plans a hard-hitting advertising campaign and mail shots to reach its target audience.
Professor Mike Thorne, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said: "Only 7 per cent of the UK workforce is currently involved in learning - why shouldn't we have 100 per cent involved?"