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South West London seeks to pilot University for Industry;TECs

IAN PARKES, chief executive of AZTEC, south-west London's training and enterprise council, wants to see a microcosm of the University for Industry in his area. Building on the success of a development project that came on stream last November, the training council is submitting a bid to pilot the University for Industry.

The development project, complete with website, focused on the take-up of management education in small businesses, breaking down barriers to learning.

"One of the most fundamental barriers to management education in small companies is that they cannot spare their key staff for the time needed to undertake training," says Mr Parkes.

The project, he says, has already given small businesses and individuals "easy access to fun, cost-effective specially tailored management 'learning on demand'." It is available not only in the workplace, but through local multimedia and study access centres, with support andguidance.

Now the council is hoping to help deliver the Government's declared aim of stimulating a mass market in lifelong learning through a national network using information technology and multimedia platforms.

Chris Humphries, chief executive of the National Council of TECs, says that to make this vision a reality, the University for Industry will have to be underpinned and supported by "hundreds and, I suspect, thousands" of local learning centres. "Technology has more potential to exclude than include, so it is vital to provide access points so potential learners are not debarred by the cost of entry."

AZTEC's approach in the development project included using CD-Roms, produced by Video Arts, famous for its use of comedians such as John Cleese and Dawn French to leaven learning with laughter. The company was among private-sector partners in the project. The Department for Education and Employment contributed pound;60,000 and the TEC itself stumped up pound;80,000.

And, addressing the fear expressed by Mr Humphries, three learning centres are now up and running. In addition, individuals can borrow laptop computers and modems to get on to the Internet. Small businesses can also borrow computers.

AZTEC also want to see basic information kiosks in supermarkets and leisure centres, browsing points in libraries and community centres, and fully fledged learning centres across Kingston, Merton and Wandsworth. Individual Learning Accounts, another key plank of the Government's Lifelong Learning Strategy, will, says Ian Parkes, play a key role in linking people to the university.

"The university and individual learning accounts must be about getting employed people to improve their skills and qualifications. Surveys have shown that while 80 per cent of employees think learning and training a good idea, only 6 per cent are doing anything about it. The challenge is to close that gap."

But he also says that, although technology can help remove barriers to learning, the importance of having people to mediate and motivate users cannot be underestimated.

AZTEC is piloting individual learning accounts in Battersea in anticipation of the 5,000 jobs that the development of the power station will bring: local people will get the chance to retrain by cashing in their accounts for courses at Westminster College.

Chris Humphries believes the University for Industry will build demand in the workplace for learning, and has the potential to transform how training and employee education is delivered.

For Ian Parkes, the University for Industry will be driven by individuals intent on improving their skills through learning. And that means providing the means for closing the gap between the 80 per cent of those in work who think learning is a good idea and the 6 per cent who are doing something about it.


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