Eighteen months after its launch, the University for Industry is still a mystery to employers. Colleges do not want it to tread the same path as they do. Martin Whittaker unravels the mysteries of the first virtual university which has yet to open for business
Wellsprings Confectionery is a small company making personalised cakes for the card and gift sector. When the firm set about updating information technology skills, it faced a real dilemma. As it employs just 36 people, sending Gregory Price, its human resources manager, away for training would have cost two-thirds of a day's production.
"We would have had to sell 4,000 cakes for me to go on a one-day course," he says.
The answer came when the firm, based near Ollerton in Nottinghamshire, linked up with Newark and Sherwood College. It offered a course in word processing, computer literacy and global communication that Price could take from his computer terminal at work.
"I would log on to the college via the Internet and access my folder. Then my tutor would set me work. It was excellent. I did meet the tutor on a regular basis one-to-one - you feel very isolated otherwise. But for us, as a small company, it was very cost effective."
Now Wellsprings is looking at ways of developing distance-learning materials and extending the training to other employees.
This kind of technology-based learning is exactly in line with the model envisaged for the University for Industry (UFI). The benefits to the company are obvious, but on a wider scale how are businesses responding? Are they preparing to make the commitment to lifelong learning that such a university will require?
Chris Humphries, director general of British Chambers of Commerce, says industry has broadly welcomed the university in principle. But, he says, publicity about how it is being developed has been limited. "Those businesses that know of it simply know of it as a set of intentions and principles. I don't think there's a member of ours out there that could actually describe to you in any detail what the UFI is likely to be like, where they can get access to it, what courses it will offer or when it will open.
"I think it would be very helpful if the UFI had a more regular communication and briefing process for employer bodies like ours, so that when we're asked by employers, 'Well, is anything happening?', we're in a position to say it's progressing."
At the university's headquarters in Sheffield, you won't find an army of academics or people preparing courses. It is housed in temporary accommodation on two floors of a city-centre building - appropriately called the Innovation Centre. The 60 staff are setting up IT systems and commissioning learning materials - the vast majority of the work on designing courses is being contracted out.
The UFI is central to the Government's lifelong learning agenda. It was the brainchild of Gordon Brown and the Institute for Public Policy Research, a centre-left think tank, while Labour was in opposition. In September 1997 a 12-month pilot began, centred on the University of Sunderland. It successfully trailed an "open all hours, one-stop-shop for education and training", offering bite-sized taster courses to get learners started. By June 1998 more than 6,000 students from Tyne and Wear and rural Northumberland had signed up for courses offered through a variety of providers: further and higher education colleges and universities, the media, agencies, voluntary groups and industry itself.
Now the Sunderland concept is being developed nationally with a start-up budget of pound;44 million. It will not offer courses itself. Rather, the UFI will act as a broker to deliver learning through a national network of partners. There will be a heavy emphasis on modern technology. The aim is to make it easy for people to learn, whether at home or in the workplace.
The university is expected to be operational by autumn next year. By 2002 it aims to provide information and advice to 2.5 million people a year. Its target for 2004 is to be stimulating demand for up to a million courses and learning packages per year.
Anne Wright has no doubts that the UFI will revolutionise lifelong learning over the next decade. She took over as chief executive last November, the obvious choice to run this flagship scheme because, while vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, she enjoyed a reputation for developing community and industry-linked initiatives.
"Our vision is for people to be able to be in touch with the UFI easily and use its services whoever they are and wherever they are - that's the principle.
"I hope that in five or 10 years time we will have, as a whole community, the opportunity to be constantly, immediately in touch with the skills we need. We can get them really easily and it's second nature for us to do it.
"We hope that - let's say in your city or community - you would be able to come to UFI, access UFI learning products in a whole variety of ways and locations - perhaps a library, a local supermarket, a village hall or community centre, in your home, or whatever," she says.
The biggest challenge to the UFI is reaching businesses. Tough selling techniques like cold calling used in the Sunderland pilot were found to be a success in reaching individuals. Yet research showed that the Sunderland pilot failed to get to staff in small businesses.
Wright acknowledges that small and medium-sized employers represent a tremendous challenge: "The time and opportunity costs of getting involved, of people going out of the workplace in a small firm, means that all too often businesses don't do that. And they're not benefiting from the enhanced performance that can bring. So it's a really important group for us.
"We're commissioning learning materials particularly to meet the needs of small businesses as well as the needs of individual sectors. We're talking to business intermediaries about that. as well as national training organisations."
The first learning centres for the university will be set up by October this year. But running in parallel with them are models of UFI-style initiatives. For example, the London Learning Zone will be launched in September. It is a European-funded project developed by AZTEC, south-west London's training and enterprise council. It is based on Skill Surfer, an earlier pilot project funded by the Department for Education and Employment. A website was set up and potential learners calling a freephone number were directed to learning centres and offered a range of materials.
Alison Corbett-Gibbin, AZTEC's strategy and development manager, says: "The whole idea of the UFI is trying to look at bite-sized chunks of learning - new forms of learning in new types of location.
Over a five-month period, some 90 clients went through the project, which was aimed at improving management development in small businesses.
"We did learn quite a lot of lessons from that, in that ICT is not the only way to go. There's still a need for the human element.
"Perhaps our locations weren't quite right for them. We had a couple that were in community colleges that weren't quite right for businesses. So we've tried to listen to what they want.
"We're looking at things like laptop loan to go out to small businesses, and one of our partners in Merton is looking to develop a mobile facility that will go out to local businesses."
Trade unions have taken an active interest in the university. Sarah Perman, a senior policy adviser with the TUC, said there is much good practice in the union movement on how to run learning centres. The TUC has been negotiating with Sheffield about linking the university and union membership. It is also running its own pilot to develop a network of shop steward learning representatives linked to the university.
"There is quite a close alignment between what the UFI wants to do and what we see ourselves doing in educationI we have the same interests at heart," says Ms Perman.
BIRTH OF THE VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY
1996: The university is the brainchild of Gordon Brown and the centre-left think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research while Labour was in opposition. In December 1996 the IPPR published 'UFI: Creating a National Learning Network' by Josh Hillman, which set out the blueprint for the initiative.
September 1997: Pilot starts at the University of Sunderland, offering bite-sized taster courses to get learners started using hi-tech. By June 1998 more than 6,000 students signed up November 1998: Dr Anne Wright CBE, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, appointed as chief executive.
1999: Infrastructure set up with headquarters in Sheffield. Offices to be established in Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. Commissioning and endorsing of learning products starts. This month, calls will go out for local consortia to run learning centres. In October the first learning centres should be ready for operation.
2000: In the spring the publicity campaign begins in earnest and the website becomes operational. National launch in the autumn.
March 2001: Up to 1,000 learning centres should be open. By the following year around 2.5 million people a year will be using UFI information sources. And by the year 2004, the UFI will be stimulating demand for a million courses and learning packages a year. Watch this space.