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The people's university

Neil Munro talks to the man taking learning to the pubs and clubs

Frank Pignatelli likes his statistics. As the chief executive of the Scottish University for Industry (Sufi) contemplates its first year, he has successes to report - not least, as of last week, surpassing an initial target of 300 learning centres set up under the Learndirect Scotland brand.

Statistics, of course, are not what they used to be. Of 223 centres approved by last November, 74 were FE colleges or their outreach centres.

Although some FE voices suggest that Sufi takes credit for work which colleges are already doing, there is evidence that its grand ambition of "building a learning nation" is beginning to take off. Learning centres are opening in pubs, football clubs, high streets and libraries as well as more traditional venues.

Mr Pignatelli, Strathclyde's former director of education, accepts that he will be challenged to demonstrate that Sufi is delivering. But even its detractors are prepared to concede that this oddly named body - which is neither about university nor just about industry - is "growing the business", helping to stimulate demand for learning.

The crucial ingredient is that, before they are branded, the Learndirect Scotland learning centres must meet the quality standards set out in Sufi's "pledge to clients". The pledge, once taken, is that the student will be offered "the time, place, pace and style of learning that most closely meets your needs".

One of the latest initiatives, launched last Friday, combines the key features that Sufi likes to boast about - working in partnership, meeting individual learning needs as well as those of businesses, plugging a skills gap and supporting the economy.

This was the official unveiling of three state-of-the-art centres for the building industry, a joint venture involving Edinburgh's Telford College, South Lanarkshire College, Glasgow College of Building and Printing, and the Construction Industry Training Board, as well as Sufi. The ambition is to have a network of centres throughout Scotland.

Mr Pignatelli does not pretend such initiatives are easy. "We are brokers of learning," he insists. "We don't deliver anything ourselves. We have to work in partnership with a range of providers while, at the same time, moving the system forward. So there is a challenge to the status quo, which will always give rise to tensions."

Although it is not intended to "deliver anything", Sufi has none the less bought some e-learning materials which it will then sell on to colleges and other providers. It has struck a deal to purchase more than 500 short courses from two of the main players - Netg (for IT courses) and PLATO (for numeracy, literacy and core skills packages).

Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, says Sufi can have an important role in setting standards through the badging of learning centres. Its leverage can also be used to get the best-in-class products and services, Mr Kelly says but adds: "The problem arises where others disagree these are the best-in-class."

For the moment, Sufi is content that it has stimulated activity beyond its own expectations. Its first year target of 300,000 hits on its website was surpassed to 5 million. And the 120,000 calls it anticipated on its Learndirect Scotland telephone helpline became a quarter of a million - one in 25 Scots.

There is no shortage of information. The Learndirect Scotland database holds details of 70,000 courses or "learning opportunities" from 2,000 providers, confirming that the 46 FE colleges and 24 HE institutions are no longer the only game in town these days.

An analysis of the 5 million hits on the organisation's website shows students want to know first of all about what finance is available, followed by childcare provision and then the case study details of students that are included on the site.

Mr Pignatelli believes his organisation is beginning to provide backing for the 50,000 new learners who have enlisted during Sufi's first year.

This meant, first of all, building online content. He revealed that only 462 of the 70,000 learning opportunities on its database were online - yet its "pledge" is that these opportunities will be provided at a "time, place, pace and style" that suits the learner.

Sufi has also devised a professional development award along with the Scottish Qualifications Authority - the first in the UK - to try to ensure that learning centre staff can advise and support learners adequately.

Finally, it has set out to track students, offering online support, so they can plan their careers based on existing competencies and what they need to do to plug gaps.

One of its most ambitious link-ups is with the NHS, in a contract which will improve the expertise of its 147,000 staff in IT, health and safety and customer care. Sufi is about to award the contract to deliver the European Computer Driving Licence to 10,000 staff. This will require tutor support and, Mr Pignatelli says, if someone insists they need a tutor at four hours' notice, that is written into the contract.

The initiative will involve a comprehensive package with e-mail, chatroom groupings with a tutor, technical support, frequently asked questions, and so on. It is yet more evidence, from Sufi's point of view, that it is "growing the business".

A far bigger challenge, Mr Pignatelli acknowledges, is meeting the needs of small to medium-size businesses, 94 per cent of which employ fewer than 10 people.

For the moment he is content that Sufi is proving its worth. "There are no doubt some who say that all we are about is marketing and spin. But stimulating demand for lifelong learning is part of our core mission."

WHAT FE PRINCIPALS SAY

* Howard Mackenzie of Jewel and Esk Valley College: "Sufi is a market intermediary in a market that is not failing. The FE funding council is containing the number of student numbers that colleges can deliver, yet the demand here is more than I can supply. So we don't need an organisation to stimulate that demand.

"I have only had 84 referrals since August last year from Learndirect Scotland, but I have had 3,500 who came through the college's own website - and these are not hits but enquiries."

* Peter Duncan of Glasgow College of Commerce: "We are keen to work with Sufi because we see it as supporting the sector. But we have yet to find ways of maximising benefit between Sufi and the colleges.

"It is raising awareness which is good for the sector, but we then have the funding council with its cap on funding which doesn't allow us to expand to meet demand."

* Tom Wilson of Glasgow College of Building and Printing and chairman of Learning and Teaching Scotland, which runs the National Grid for Learning (NgFL): "I don't see any conflict between the NgFL and what Sufi is doing. The NgFL is delivering IT support mechanisms which will hopefully benefit lifelong learning.

"Sufi seems to be doing a good job and I'm encouraged by the number of students coming to us via Learndirect Scotland."

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