University for a new age;FE Focus
The pilot - a partnership between the Institute for Public Policy Research and the University of Sunderland - was launched in September. The project is supported by more than 40 public-sector agencies and commercial companies including Sunderland Training and Enterprise Council.
It's all about access. So it is therefore appropriate that the pilot includes an open-all-hours telephone advice line, staffed by trained people who can offer a range of "skills for work" education programmes available through 28 learning centres based in public places across the region.
Its appeal is direct. The first recruitment and publicity push came through reader-friendly information-packed leaflets distributed to 179,000 homes - with the banner headline: "Learn more earn more" on its front page, and the offer of free taster courses.
"IT for the Terrified" and "Internet for All" have proved particularly popular among the 700 people who have registered so far.
The hope is that the UFI will appeal to people keen to boost their own skills and, as the leaflet proclaims, their earning power.
Helen Milner, project manager, believes the UFI in the North-east is drawing strength from its spread of partners, the history of partnerships in the area and a lot of goodwill. It is also benefiting from the novel setting of its centres, which include Learning World at Gateshead's MetroCentre and Sunderland Football Club's Stadium of Light.
Once registered, students are provided with facilities to allow them to use e-mail and to enter on-line conferences and seminars with tutors and fellow students - a virtual environment which should help foster learning.
The UFI is pitched at everyone who wants to use it. The Department for Education and Employment will shortly be commissioning a formal evaluation of the pilot, who is using it and what they are using it for.
Early evidence suggests it already has wide appeal - women keen to return to the jobs market, people in jobs but eager to get more qualifications and, particularly, young people who have not perhaps fulfilled their potential through traditional ways of learning.
Ms Milner cited one recruit who left school with no qualifications. "It is very interesting that we are getting people who do not have qualifications, who are willing to come back quite quickly themselves to do something they think is interesting. Some of that appeal may lie in the technology. We want individuals who are in control of their own choices when it comes to decisions they make about education and training."
The message from the UFI is clear. Empowering individuals is the way to boost the region's and - if it goes nationwide - the country's skills.