Life, the UFI and why it matters;FE Focus

25th June 1999 at 01:00
The matching suits and scarves brigade was out in force to usher in a new learning age. Simon Midgley reports

LORD Dearing described it as the "Heineken effect". The role of the new University for Industry, he explained, is to reach those parts of the community relatively untouched by education.

The UFI's chairman was addressing nearly 200 delegates from colleges, universities, local authorities and business at a UFI roadshow in London.

It was one of eight roadshows being held throughout the country this month to galvanise the nation's enthusiasm for the fledgling university.

The shows come with a video complete with loud and punchy music, delegates' briefcases (with optional shoulder-straps) and white and gold ballpoints along with the ubiquitous presentation pack. Delegates are even welcomed by women dressed in blue suits and matching scarves.

The Government regards the UFI as a flagship for establishing lifelong learning - updating information technology skills, assuring basic literacy and numeracy and servicing the training needs of small to medium-sized businesses - for all in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland will have its own version).

However, there still appears to be some confusion in the public mind about the precise nature of this new educational beast - shown in the responses of delegates before the roadshow began.

"If you find someone who knows what it's about, point him at me," said one university director of distance learning. A college development officer, asked what the university was all about, replied: "That's a good question."

A west London librarian thought there may be confusion about the UFI as there had been so many New Labour educational initiatives.

A senior education officer from Islington said: "Oo, it's a test!" before correctly plumping for the Government's commitment to lifelong learning.

Lord Dearing, however, speaks with a convert's zeal: "I want to begin by saying that I see UFI as engaged in a crusade," he said. "I am trying to create the passion that goes with a crusade to bring this nation as individuals into learning throughout their working lives and beyond."

There was, he added, a correlation between how far you got in education in the first place and how far you continued with it later in life. This, Lord Dearing said, was where the Heineken effect came in.

He said the more effective people were at their jobs, the more likely it was that Britain would have jobs. Education was the key to maintaining the nation's competitiveness by boosting the skills base.

As Britain cannot compete with the vast, low-wage working populations of India and China, it was crucial to move into highly-skilled and knowledge-based work.

He said the UFI involved a new approach to learning which was tailored to individual needs. He invited colleges, local authorities, private companies and others to form partnerships to manage the university's learning centres.

The learning centres, which could be in colleges, businesses, libraries or virtually any place where people work, study or relax - would offer learners high-quality, and accessible learning opportunities.

Anne Wright, UFI chief executive, spoke of "the vision for learning centres". Proposals for learning centres and consortia hub partnerships - involving groups of training and education bodies running these centres - were invited by July 16. "Most importantly in many ways," she said "we want to see how the vision will work for you."

Clearly one key reason why the roadshow was so well attended is that colleges and others will be able to earn income from running learning centres andor providing educational materials for the university.

Some pound;920 million is to be spent on funding learning centres and pound;50.25m is being spent on marketing and branding the UFI, on its computer networks and on its learning products.

As with all educational initiatives the day included the usual flurry of marketing cliches - "growing the market", "adding value" and "step change increase in volume of learners".

Doug Gowan, project director of the Open Learning Partnership in north London and the Lee Valley, spoke of the achievements of his partnership which is building a network of 22 learning centres in colleges, libraries and businesses.

He said his partnership's experience showed the importance of locating the centres in accessible places such as shops; providing educational opportunities at times to suit learners and offering plenty of support to get people back into education. There was a vast largely untapped demand for skills, he added.

Later Lord Dearing quoted the words of the deputy prime minister of Singapore who was asked how his country was going to cope with low-wage, mass labour competition from China. He replied: "By keeping 10 years up the learning curve".

So the only way of stealing a march on such competitors is to continually refine the labour force's cutting edge, advancing skills through education and training. Britain's opportunities for teaching and supported learning need to be of world class, Lord Dearing said.

This, he added, would place the teaching profession centre-stage.

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