The belief that Government can have a powerful role in influencing skills development has been unfashionable among academics for some time. Some argue that, until companies shift towards products and services in areas that require higher level skills, training policy will be ineffectual. Others suggest Government can do little to influence skills levels without a domineering approach to employer expenditure on training. A small minority claim there is not a skills problem and that Government, employers and individuals already spend enough on training.
The IPPR sets out new terms for the debate. It says the capabilities of the work force need to be substantially and continually boosted to meet rapidly evolving challenges. This will require much more widespread and regular participation in education and training than has been possible hitherto. And it will require the creation of a culture where education is virtually "mass-marketed". It will also require the development of new ways of organising and delivering learning that respond better to people's needs.
These are tall orders. If we treat learning as a good like any other and leave it to the market, the rapid transformations in so many countries will simply not happen in the UK. But if laissez faire threatens public money and public responsibility, a dirigiste approach risks a debacle of false starts and the exploration of blind alleys at public expense. It would probably involve setting up a new institution, such as an Open University for the workplace, with a large administrative complex producing materials, running courses, and delivering systems for assessment and accreditation.
We already have over a hundred universities, several hundred further education colleges and thousands of other organisations, running courses, producing educational packages and awarding certificates. The UFI should not be a new institution competing with other providers of education and training. Previous initiatives with similar objectives to the UFI have collapsed when existing institutions felt threatened. Moreover, the challenges are far too great for a single provider to deal with alone.
A better solution is a national catalyst, co-ordinating and accelerating the nascent market and ensuring it accommodates social needs and priorities. If the UFI is to succeed, it will be by channelling the knowledge, energy and expertise currently dispersed across companies and educational institutions, and making it available to anyone interested in improving their skills.
The UFI should therefore be a broker, operating on the hub of a national learning network, progressively embracing homes, workplaces and public places, such as FE colleges, libraries, schools and dedicated outlets in high streets and shopping centres. The exploitation of new technologies to help people learn should be central to the UFI concept, not least as a way of reconciling the demands for boosting access and participation, preserving and improving quality, and generating lower costs.
However, the national learning network must not be seen simply as a web of wires. It needs to be a much broader nationwide facility, bringing people into contact with providers, materials, courses and support services, and each other.
While learning activities would be largely driven by the demands of individuals and employers, the university would also need to identify and anticipate skill and knowledge needs, target groups and flagship programme areas. A strategic unit, in consultation with various interests, would diagnose areas for development or quality improvement. It would then commission the adaptation of combinations of course materials and modules and, in some cases, the creation of new products and services.
This may involve negotiating collaborative ventures or raising seedcorn money from business and industry, Millennium funds or European grants.
Another key role for the UFI would be to kitemark learning centres in the workplace and in the community. These centres would give people access to the network and more sophisticated facilities than might be available at home and work. They would also offer contact with tutors and other learners, support and guidance services, and a system for putting people in touch with mentors. In addition, they would give employees who want to move jobs the opportunity to learn away from their employers. Finally, learning centres could play a major role in outreach, attracting groups of learners unable or disinclined to take up opportunities to improve their skills and employability.
The learning revolution that the UFI would promote would be as much a demand-side revolution as a supply-side one. Even with the best content, delivery and support in the world, people have to be motivated to take up opportunities.
Josh Hillman is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.