Chris Johnston meets a new chief executive eager to dispel the myths surrounding the University for Industry.
THE principal of Cambridge Regional College, Ann Limb, is to become the new chief executive of UFI, which operates the lifelong-learning network Learndirect.
She takes up the position on August 1, replacing Dr Anne Wright, the former University of Sunderland vice-chancellor, who is leaving after launching the pioneering venture.
Many will conclude that Ms Limb's appointment is an attempt to appease the further education sector, which has sometimes felt unloved by UFI despite being crucial to getting most of the 900 Learndirect centres up and running.
With Learndirect's mission to entice reluctant learners, she understands how some in the sector believe that UFI needs FE but would rather do without it. However, that is both a "myth and a misconception", Ms Limb insists.
Learndirect has had its difficulties, she concedes: "I wouldn't gloss over them, but I don't agree that my appointment is about winning over FE, though if it happens that's great."
Nevertheless, more than 50 principals emailed Ms Limb on the day of her appointment last week to offer their congratulations, with many saying it was "brilliant for FE, and I agree with that".
A staunch defender of the sector, she is "proud to have had my career in FE". That career began in 1977 at St John's College in Manchester as a part-time tutor, prompted by a desire to teach.
After lecturing at High Peak and North East Derbyshire colleges, Ms Limb became vice-principal at Milton Keynes College in 1986, before moving up to the top job three years later and becoming, at 36, Britain's youngest college head in the process. She took up her current job at Cambridge in 1996.
By her own admission, Ms Limb, 48, was a "maverick principal" who never embraced managerialism and was the only one of her peers not to join the then Colleges Employers Forum (now the Association of Colleges).
FE, she says, has experienced fundamntal change in the past two decades, with colleges no longer being glorified night schools but institutions that reach one in five people. Ms Limb thinks that the Learning and Skills Council will be good news for the sector. Staff, though, have had a raw deal and that "has to be fixed".
Cambridge Regional College, with more than 3,000 full-time students, is a good example of a modern college, promoting open and flexible learning through its own Learndirect centre and receiving national recognition for its use of technology in learning and assessment.
This involvement means Ms Limb is well aware of the issues facing colleges involved with the venture. In her view, the 95,000 people who have signed up for a Learndirect course in the past 12 months represent a fair start, and, she says, there are no benchmarks to judge the e-learning venture. "To me it doesn't feel like something that is in immense trouble or difficulty and I really think we have hardly got started."
Raising awareness of the Learndirect brand will be a priority for Ms Limb, who says too few people yet know what it is.
There is also a "big job" to do in taking Learndirect more into business and industry. Asked whether the UFI tag should be abandoned altogether (the acronym is not once spelt out as "University for Industry" in the press release announcing her appointment), she says she is "perfectly happy to be known as the person running Learndirect".
As long as Learndirect courses are available when and where learners want and they satisfy their needs, Ms Limb thinks they will appeal. Online learning is just one part of what Learndirect is about, she stresses, as many learners will need face-to-face help to at least get started.
UFI is still feeling its way, a fact not lost on its new chief executive:
"We don't have a national model for online learning below degree level, and Learndirect is trying to create that through hubs and partners, and it is a big challenge."