True meaning of Sufi leaves MSPs whirling;Further Education

5th November 1999 at 00:00
THE Scottish University for Industry (Sufi) will have to get its act together rapidly if it is to convince sceptical MSPs that it is more than just worthy rhetoric.

Although a parliamentary debate on Sufi last week was marked by the rare sight of the Scottish Executive accepting an SNP amendment, the unanimity in the chamber was as much to do with impatience for the concept to prove itself as it was for a welcome in principle.

A number of MSPs echoed the view from John Swinney, the deputy SNP leader, that the university must "add value" to existing provision not simply duplicate it. Fergus Ewing, SNP member for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, asked whether it would be more than just a "dating agency" putting learners in touch with those that provided learning.

Although the announcement of Frank Pignatelli as the university's first chief executive was made last week, the organisation has no other staff, no location and no permanent name (Sufi, it has emerged, is only a working title).

Mr Swinney received an assurance from Alasdair Morrison, the deputy to Henry McLeish, the Lifelong Learning Minister, that the new enterprise would be closely monitored. Among "tough targets" would be the number of calls to its learning helpline, the numbers who take up learning, the figures for those who move on to further learning and the number who complete learning programmes.

The "university" will have a wide-ranging brief to encourage lifelong learning and break down barriers to participation as well as to commission learning materials and find out what business requires. Its official launch is not until next autumn.

But a number of the Government's most informed backbenchers expressed reservations. Trish Godman (Lab, West Renfrewshire) said there was tension between the university's role as a broker rather than provider of learning and as an assurer of learning quality.

Des McNulty (Lab, Clydebank and Milngavie) said its purpose had not yet been fully explained. "I hope that ministers will be clear that it will be complementary - not more of the same - unique and different."

The need for basic information to reach the professionals not just excluded learners was highlighted by Nick Johnston (Con, Mid Scotland and Fife), who warned: "My wife works in community education and has very little information on the Scottish University for Industry."

Fiona McLeod (SNP, West of Scotland) said the first requirement was a national audit on whether the telecommunications system is geared to deliver online learning. Otherwise lifelong learning accessed through technology could remain "a pipe dream".

Several MSPs put in bids for the university to be based in their constituencies. South of Scotland members Michael Russell (SNP) and Elaine Murray (Lab) led the case for the new Crichton College in Dumfries, Karen Whitefield (Lab) suggested her Airdrie and Shotts constituency, while Christine Grahame (SNP, South of Scotland) and Euan Robson (Lib Dem, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) preferred the Borders.

They were told an announcement would be made "shortly".

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