Gordon's baby looking bonny

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Nick Pearce was there at the birth of Ufi and believes it will go from strength to strength

Learndirect started life as a glint in Gordon Brown's eye. As he began to recast Labour's economic policy in the early 1990s, he proposed a new "desktop university" to supply skills training to the workplace. In Brown's New Britain, flexible learning would be available on demand, down the line.

The concept was taken up by Josh Hillman at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), who put flesh on the bones of Brown's skeleton.

Hillman proposed a new organisation, akin to Channel 4, that would commission learning and distribute it, both online and through a nationwide network of learning centres. In Hillman's schema, the University for Industry, as it had become known, would also offer information and advice on learning opportunities and seek to catalyse new demand for skills courses. His proposal formed one of Labour's key skills pledges in its 1997 manifesto.

The IPPR subsequently piloted the idea in Sunderland, working with pioneers at the university and local colleges. By and large, it was a success. It showed that high-street access to learning with savvy marketing of bite-size courses could generate a new appetite for training. Packages of learning such as IT for the terrified proved popular and relevant in an area long blighted by economic decline.

Learndirect has since gone national, backed by significant investment. Has it been a success? On sheer numbers, it is difficult to deny its appeal: 2 million learners have now taken its courses. It's the biggest education provider outside China: more than 8 in 10 recognise the learndirect brand.

But learndirect did not have an easy birth. Colleges bridled at the big new kid on the block. Universities scoffed at its use of their title and muttered darkly about royal charters. Techno gurus moaned at using learning centres.

None of these concerns proved fatal. Sure, learndirect swerved through changes in its leadership. And critics have a point when they ask if one organisation can really cover such a broad sweep of responsibilities.

These arguments are unlikely to go away. Like every public service, learndirect will face tougher times when government spending starts to slow down. But it is part of the learning landscape now - an institutional embodiment of Blair's New Labour as much as the Open University was to Harold Wilson's white heat of technology.

It will survive the odd bit of mudslinging from competitors and collaborators. The demand for flexible, high-quality skills training will carry on growing in the years ahead and learndirect will be well placed to capitalise on this demand. In its own way, it represents that quiet genius for invention for which the British have a curious knack. Long may it thrive.

Nick Pearce is director of the IPPR

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