The Government's University for Industry pilot project has wooed 5,000 people since last September. Martin Whittaker reports
IF YOU live in Tyne and Wear you might get a phone call on a Saturday from someone selling you something. If it's not double glazing or a new conservatory, it might just be new improved lifelong learning.
This may seem like hard sell, but such marketing techniques are at the heart of the University for Industry pilot project in the North-east. The project has just come to the end of phase one and the university is due to go national by 2000 with public and private funding. The Government's aim is that within four years 2.5 million people will be using the university's range of information services.
Delegates from further education, training and enterprise councils and industry gathered for a seminar at the University of Sunderland recently to hear about its progress.
And the message from the pilot's partners is that it's working - there have been 5,375 registrations since it began last September. The idea of a University for Industry was first proposed by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, while he was in opposition, and is now central to the Government's aims for lifelong learning.
The University of Sunderland describes it as "an open-all-hours one-stop-shop for education and training". The UFI does not offer courses itself, but acts as a broker, giving the public access to information, advice and enrolment on a range of learning options.
At the scheme's hub is call centre with freephone lines and a database of courses available. There are 35 "learning centres" where people can pop in and use facilities.
Use of the computer technology is well to the fore in the project, particularly the Internet and the use of software to track learners through the UFI system.
Also central to the idea is giving learners choice, for example, of whether they have access to a tutor or rely on information technology, and to give education on demand - you can start learning when and where you want to.
The pilot has come about through a collaboration of further education colleges, universities, the media, agencies, voluntary groups, and industry.
The North-east was chosen partly because it has the country's lowest participation in adult education, said Helen Milner, UFI pilot project manager. She says there is a need for training and education in an area that's lost its traditional manufacturing base and apprenticeships.
"The University of Sunderland is the second biggest employer in Sunderland now. We are actually sitting in a building where there used to be a shipyard," she said.
"But if we are really talking about engaging millions of people in lifelong learning then they're not going to do it in buildings like this, and they're not going to be doing it in a classroom. You have to take it out to people" The UFI project has done this in various ways, getting the BBC to promote it, and siting learning centres not just in libraries, but in everyday places such as Sunderland Football Club, or the city's shopping centre.
The call centre has been run by Pathways Career Development Centre, Sunderland, a partnership of local agencies and careers and employment services.
The centre fields calls from interested learners, but it is also cold calling people, asking if they would like to be sent free tasters - workbooks they can use at home on a range of subjects.
Pathways manager Dorothy Kelly is delighted with the response. "It surprised me because I didn't think people would take to it very well. But it's been really positive.
"We have phoned back again and said how did your taster go? And people say 'brilliant - I'm ready for something else now'.
"Cold calling was something I was even more anxious about. But, to be fair, what we were selling people was a free taster."
"Once people understood there was no catch and that it was the University of Sunderland - these were responsible organisations - that made the job a lot easier."
This marketing approach extends to branding and slogans too. During the seminar, which itself at times seemed something of a PR exercise, awards were presented to two learners.
One of the winners was Mike Burns, a shopkeeper from Gateshead, who is now doing an National Vocational Qualification in information technology after seeing publicity about a UFI computer taster called "IT for the Terrified".
He said: "Two words actually stood out. One was computer and the other was terrified. That's what I was - I was terrified to even consider having a computer."
Josh Hillman, author of the Institute for Public Policy Research report which set out the blueprint for the project, said: "The main thing we have learned through doing this pilot project is that we need to be much more innovative about marketing techniques, particularly to draw on the practices of the commercial sector which in many ways are unfamiliar to educational institutions.
"When it was suggested that we do some cold calling or telesales of potential learners I thought 'no way'. People are averse to being called up on a Saturday morning. But we found the opposite.
"My own view is that traditional education institutions tended to have an attitude of handling potential learners with kid gloves. That these people have had a very bad experience of school, they have negative associations with education and we have to be very careful.
"But we have found that if you are slightly aggressive about marketing learning to them, it does actually pay off in terms of getting them in."