The once-great northern city that fell by the wayside with the decline of its wool trade is making a comeback with help from a Virtual College, reports Neil Levis
THE ADVERTISEMENT outside Forster Square station says: "Bradford, the can-do university." It is an attitude that pervades this proud Victorian city. The wool trade made it Britain's richest at the turn of the century - a pre-eminence it lost because it failed to anticipate the threat from overseas. Then the city suffered another economic blow in the 1970s when Thorn EMI closed down its television factory.
But that setback sowed the seeds of recovery because the engineers it put out of work have stayed to spawn today's burgeoning electronics industry. And now, with the help of a network of local businessmen who are pushing up the standards of training through the University for Industry (UFI), the chances are Bradford will regain its former economic glory.
One of the forces in the city's revival is the Virtual College, a private company started in earnest only three years ago but singled out for praise in the Green Paper, The Learning Age (in March 1998), as a model of how to offer training both to the unemployed and those in work.
One of the paths that the Virtual College has pioneered is to enable people to train without leaving their workplace. John Winkley, its business development manager, explains: "FE is held back by the restrictions on how colleges can offer courses. Often they can only be paid by having a lecturer in front of a class. There's no financial incentive to run courses in certain subjects, the areas that the University for Industry has highlighted, where people need on-the-job training."
"What we have done is to modify the provision. We don't want just traditional teaching methods. People need o learn in new ways. Learning centres have always typically been in colleges but now we are looking to set them up in libraries, inside companies, in supermarkets. To quote our own slogan, we are organising courses to suit learners at a pace, a place and a time of their own choosing. Colleges are being flexible about how they offer courses."
The other problem facing FE is a shortage of suitable teaching software. The Virtual College, which grew out of a project started through the local training and enterprise council, has the multimedia expertise. Other colleges have the staff with years of teaching experience and knowledge but they lack the computer publishing expertise.
"We are working with about 20 colleges to develop their training materials," says Winkley. "We keep the publishing rights, but they get the royalties. We discount the service to them - we charge them about half price - and they get professional development at a fairly cheap rate. Colleges too can quite often get money from a funded programme as the Government pumps money in around the edges for open and distance learning and UFI initiatives."
The University for Industry wants businesses such as the Virtual College to concentrate on specialist areas. Training software can then be made available nationally through a network of regional hubs, fanning out to every college in the country - in theory at least. For instance, much of the software from the Virtual College is being used extensively in south Wales.
In Bradford, the main employers are the local building society and the Abbey National bank, which has its headquarters here. But it is in electronics, engineering and manufacturing that the Virtual College specialises and is hoping to produce one of the most highly skilled workforces in the world.