Market pioneer or cowboy's charter?

19th June 1998 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports on a mixed reception for the new Scottish University for Industry

A NEW acronym was launched on the Scottish education scene yesterday (Thursday) with the official unveiling of Sufi - the Scottish University for Industry. It will introduce significant competition into education and training.

The initiative, promised by the Education Minister in February, will be a distinctly Scottish venture paralleling the University for Industry south of the border. There will be a separate Scottish chief executive and board of management.

The "market-driven" University is being backed by pound;1.3 million in Scottish Office cash. Additional funding is being sought from the private sector in a public-private partnership. Total costs in the launch year are an estimated pound;5m in Scotland.

The official aim is to have one million learners on Sufi courses by 2000, of whom 100,000 are anticipated to be in Scotland. Professor Alisdair MacFarlane, chairman of the Sufi advisory group and retired principal of Heriot-Watt University, said people will be able to register electronically "for free and for life".

The Government will kick start the University by placing pound;150 into one million "individual learning accounts".

Learners would be expected to put up pound;25 of their own money. Employers can also contribute, but this will be voluntary.

"This will be an empowering process for the first time in lifelong learning," Professor MacFarlane said, "Within 10 to 20 years a huge new sector will be opened up which hasn't existed before."

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, outlined the plans yesterday at Napier University's Edinburgh Sighthill campus. He described Sufi as "collecting those who want to learn with ways of doing it."

But when the details were revealed to further education leaders last week, they received a frosty reception. This was despite the best efforts of Professor MacFarlane, who told the Association of Scottish Colleges' annual conference it was "intended to open up learning" and represented a major opportunity for FE colleges.

Professor MacFarlane conceded that, while colleges and other existing providers should have a head start, there would eventually be strong competition as major new players entered the learning game. Motorola and Ford had already indicated their intention to establish learning centres for their own staff which would also be open to outsiders.

"It will be a market-driven approach which will introduce into education things people may not be entirely happy with," Professor MacFarlane said.

Douglas Harrison, a former trade union officer who chairs the Stow College board in Glasgow, warned that small firms and "cowboy" employers could "ponce off" increased levels of learning and training willingly undertaken by large organisations.

Ray Murray, the principal of Thurso College, also expressed concern that people could be "exploited by cowboy providers who pocket the cash and build their bungalows".

Professor MacFarlane agreed this was "a major problem which has to be resolved". But he suggested the Sufi "branding," which would endorse approved courses, qualifications and materials, should allay fears.

John Burnett, chairman of the board at Oatridge Agricultural College, said he had "begun depressed and ended up angry" as he listened to the Sufi plans. "Do the people behind this have any idea what we in FE have been doing for years?" he asked. "If the millions behind the University for Industry were put into FE, we could deliver."

Professor MacFarlane replied that "while I understand the concern that Sufi is simply turning into policy what the colleges are already doing, there are new things in it as well".

He made it clear that Sufi would not be a direct provider of courses. like the Open University, but will pass on adult learners to those who do. People could use call centre technology to access information in "non-threatening" entry points such as libraries, shopping complexes and learning centres in the community. A national helpline (0800 100 900) willconnect learners and courses, building on existing data bases.

The project will tackle both supply and demand for learning, encouraging participation as well as filling in gaps by commissioning new Sufi-branded courses and materials.

Peter Duncan, the principal of Central College in Glasgow, called for co-ordination with existing activities. He chairs the Colleges Open Learning Exchange Group (Coleg), which also helps generate and swap learning materials for students.

The job of getting Sufi off the ground is being handed to Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who will then pull out in a couple of years time.

Leader, page 16

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