Mission to find latent skills

31st July 1998 at 01:00
The idea of the University for Industry has been launched several times, but some have wondered if we will ever see the real thing. This now looks certain.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, recently announced the appointment of Ian Johnston - outgoing deputy principal of Sheffield Hallam University - as team leader for the short period of transition until the appointment of the chief executive.

Dr Johnston will be reporting to a board chaired by Lord Sainsbury, who has retired from the family business. It is hoped that he will do for lifelong learning what he successfully did for wine and avocados - create a mass market.

In the coming weeks, these new kids on the University for Industry (UFI) block will be on a steep learning curve. They will not only have to get to grips with a complex model but will also have to weigh the claims of the various interest groups who see different interpretations of the UFI as the answer to their problems, or in some cases as a source of extra funding.

As the fledgling UFI emerges from its shell, its shape will be vital to its success. The phrase "third way" has already become tired, but if it means anything it is the innovative approach that the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) devised and mapped for the university. The catalytic nature of the university avoids two highly-undesirable scenarios.

In the first, a monolithic state-run institution appears in an already crowded market-place, and is seen off by threatened providers. In the second, an attempt is made to lubricate the existing market by simply providing a signposting service without any intervention in what is being signposted.

Cynics have been unable to come to terms with a genuinely new form of organisation which does not attempt to supplant existing providers, which indeed offers them new opportunities but which will subject them to new forms of competition for those opportunities. Some educationists do not like the learnerconsumer orientation of the UFI and the threat it implies to established ways of doing things.

We still hold that the UFI will not succeed unless it does three things, all of which challenge such criticism. It must accelerate the development of a radical approach to education and training provision that exploits new interactive technologies. It must lead a national drive to promote lifelong learning for all individuals and companies, and information and advice that fit in with people's life and work.

The prospectus sets out a very clear exposition of what sort of organisation the UFI will be, what it will do, and how. But big questions of funding quality assurance and technological development will have to be tackled quickly by Johnston and his team. And an even more fundamental problem remains. Two buzzwords - competitiveness and employability -appear prominently in the first paragraph on the vision, aims and objectives. Of course, the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship. But there will be a tough choice between chicken and egg in the early funding of the UFI. While the name University for Industry suggests a primary focus on the needs of companies, UFI development has been led by the Department for Education and Employment, whose interest and experience is much more consistent with an agenda about preparing individuals for the world of work.

The IPPR and the University of Sunderland are currently running a UFI pilot project in the North- east which is putting into practice most of the key features of the UfI model - publicprivate and multi-agency partnership, impartial and lean brokerage, innovative marketing, and a network of local learning centres, to name just four. The pilot has been a storming success. Within a few months thousands of people have been brought back into learning. But engaging companies themselves addressing their need to become more competitive has been much more difficult.

The UFI must as soon as possible cut deep into the huge latent demand for the improvement of basic and intermediate skills for work. But it needs also to derive the prestige and cachet that come with a presence at the high-tech end of the market.

This will be best met through more specialised work at the level of the sector or the profession. Companies like Motorola, Unipart and British Aerospace are at various stages of setting up what they claim to be "virtual universities". They should be encouraged to look beyond their own employees and suggest ways in which others might benefit. Meanwhile, British universities should look to their American counterparts like MIT and use innovative computer-based techniques to link businesses of all sizes into centres of research and expertise.

Much less thinking has gone into this for UFI and it is an area with which the Department for Education and Employment has less familiarity. IPPR is currently researching the possibilities and is considering another pilot. Unlike with basic skills, it is possible to see how initial funding at the high-tech end of UFI - whether from the state, from venture capitalists or from the companies themselves - could be repaid, perhaps several times over. Indeed, since the UFI is likely to be a company without shareholders, it is perfectly conceivable that it might even be able to cross-subsidise the most unprofitable types of learning activity. Many of our most successful employers and education and training providers have already recognised the benefits of such an organisation and are willing to help to make it work. The sooner they are given this opportunity the better.

Josh Hillman is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research

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