The immediate task of the UFI will be to commission workplace study programmes to improve the skills of workers at minimum cost to the small to medium enterprises which make up more than 90 per cent of the country's employers.
Labour leader Tony Blair is understood to be planning a major launch in the last days before the election, to win over what has been seen as a stubbornly pro-Tory group. They range from shopkeepers and artisans to medium manufacturing companies with fewer than 100 employees.
He and David Blunkett, the education and employment spokesman, are expected to put flesh on sketchy plans created by the centre-left Institute of Public Policy Research.
The UFI will be a commissioning body, paying others to provide education and training. A central intelligence unit would research and monitor market trends and fill gaps before the economy is damaged.
Mr Blair's education and training team say UFI's role will be similar to Channel 4's TV networking one. UFI will approach training providers (and employers with a good track record for training) offering cash support for them to help spread good practice.
Stephen Byers, Labour's training spokesman, said: "We expect it to do for industry what the Open University did for higher education. Further education colleges will have a crucial role to play as potential providers of training programmes for what must be a workplace initiative."
There will be no base known as the UFI. It is seen by many in the party as the first "virtual university," operating through computer networks and devolved to colleges and the workplace. However, there will be a headquarters to manage the initiatives.
Businesses have already been approached and are said to be keen to give financial backing. Mr Blair is expected to say which companies are involved, what the start-up costs are likely to be and how the UFI will be managed, at the launch.
By choosing to go for small to medium enterprises, Labour is adopting a high risk strategy. The failure of successive governments to convince small employers of the need to ensure continuing education and training for their workforces has been the biggest obstacle to efforts to keep Britain internationally competitive.
Other roles which Mr Blair is set to announce for the UFI are in continuing adult education and monitoring for people who need to be constantly planning their careers.
"The UFI and individual learning accounts - where the employer, Government and employee invest jointly in career development and lifetime learning - are complementary," Mr Byers said.
But, he stressed that there would be no compulsion on individuals to spend such savings on UFI courses. What the university offered would have to compete in the market-place alongside others such as colleges and private training providers.
A new Labour government would most likely start with a feasibility study on the best way to set up and manage the UFI, though there would be help from models already being explored by the IPPR.
The UFI could assist with initiatives such as a current venture by publishers to produce low-cost materials to help employers update their skills and gain national vocational qualifications.
"There is a large number of people with no basic qualifications, even though they are in the workplace. They are the most vulnerable to changes in demand for skills," said Mr Byers.
He also pledged that there would be new money for FE colleges to help them take advantage of the new initiatives.
It would come from better use of cash used for regional programmes and from the UFI, as well as the Pounds 3-5 billion windfall tax on the privatised utilities.
Labour is acutely aware of the time lag between the launch of individual learning accounts and the use of that cash for training and career development. In the first year, cash will only stretch to putting Pounds 120 a piece into a million accounts.
The UFI is likely to be called on to help bridge the gap and to commission pilot programmes for a Labour government's Welfare to Work programme for 250,000 long-term young unemployed.
TES april 18 1997 CHRISTOPHERJONES