Following the Government's White Paper outlining plans for technology institutes, Steve Hook visits a Berkshire trailblazer
SET in the unashamedly commercial surroundings of a Berkshire industrial estate is an operation which marries commerce to further education in a way which would make some traditionalists quake in their corduroys.
Its name is The Digital Academy and itsmanagers aim to achieve the same business ethos as the string of computer-age firms which have turned this part of the south-east into the UK's answer to Silicon Valley.
And it is just the sort of venture visualised in the Department for Education and EmploymentDepartment for Trade and Industry White Paper when it talks of a network of technology institutes to be established across the country.
Surprisingly, in the modern FE climate, the Wokingham academy is not an arms-length limited company but part and parcel of Reading College and School of Arts and Design. Fred McCrindle, the college's principal, sees it as a model not just for the White Paper but for attracting private investment and expertise while remaining firmly within the college's control.
"If there's one thing colleges have been particularly good at, it is reacting to change and being willing to do things differently in changing circumstances," he said. "And that is what this centre is about and why, I suppose, it is seen as an example of what could happen elsewhere.
"Many of the students who use this centre are already working in industry and have been sent here by their employers. For those who are going to be looking for work when they have finished here, we can more or less guarantee that they will find work, many of them with the companies we have close contacts with."
One half of the capital start-up costs of pound;2.5 million were provided by the centre's business partners and the other from Government agencies, including the Further Education Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council and the South-East England Development Agency.
The academy's industrial supporters include Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Xerox and Kodak.
Most of the start-up money was spent on hardware, including a web-server, printing technology, and computer equipment capable of tasks such as 3D graphics manipulation and animation requiring massive amounts of data storage. All the computer systems, both PC and Apple Mac-based, are fully-integrated.
Courses include national vocational qualifications, degrees and even a higher national diploma in graphic design, with higher education qualifications certified by the college's academic partners - Thames Valley University and Oxford Brookes University.
Reading's higher education rogramme was recently expanded when it became a pilot centre for the new foundation degree. Mr McCrindle is unconcerned with the parallels which might be drawn with the old polytechnics, created in 1965 to meet the demand for people trained to technician level.
"Whether people want to use the word polytechnic is up to them. I don't think it's relevant to what we're trying to do," he said.
Around 1,000 students are catered for at the academy, compared with 12,000 at the college as a whole. The college provides commercial services in areas such as e-learning and running student data base systems, providing an income and enabling teaching staff, some of whom are themselves drawn from the industry, to keep their skills up-to-date.
Ray Fuell, who was appointed director at the centre's launch in 1999, comes from the print industry, which has been strong in the Thames Valley but has declined in its traditional form through the introduction of new technology.
The academy has been helping some of his former colleagues to retrain. The college joined forces with the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, to provide basic IT training for 75 people aged 35 to 50 who were identified by the union as "at risk" of unemployment - either because they had already lost their jobs or were facing redundancy.
"The average printer is in his or her 40s," says Mr Fuell. "The industry has gone from being a craft trade to being about communications. Some of them come here and are frightened to touch a mouse because they think they are going to break something.
"Then, a little while into their training, you find they've invested in a PC to use at home."
If the academy's methods are to be followed elsewhere in the country, the Government is likely to be forced to think harder about the old chestnut of FE lecturers' pay.
Even Mr McCrindle concedes this could be a sticking point in some colleges. To some extent, the academy has been able to top up its teachers' salaries with money from its private partners. Whether this will be so easy to achieve outside the prosperous south-east is another question.
The problem is highlighted in Skills Foresight, a report by the the Further Education National Training Organisation, based on a survey of 142 colleges. "More than half the colleges in the survey identify skills gaps in their lecturing staff that are having a negative effect on their ability to use IT in the curriculum," it says.
Poor pay compared with the private sector is cited as a key reason for the recruitment crisis, an ominous fact when it comes to creating centres specialising in IT, an area where pay differences between FE and industry are particularly stark.