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Wiltshire offers a blueprint

A University for Industry is the centrepiece of the Opposition's proposals for taking education and training into every workplace.

Political heads and leaders of education and business in Wiltshire are planning a new university which could be seen as a blueprint for Labour's University for Industry. It follows the county's conclusion it has no money to create the purpose-built university which it says it needs to meet growing demand and to prevent a "brain drain".

The Wiltshire initiative would see national and international companies joining with local authority groups and colleges to help provide university services. The internet and access points in further education colleges, libraries and schools would be used to reach students in the rural enclaves.

Links between a local industry scheme in Swindon - the largest conurbation in Wiltshire - and the county council's Higher Education Steering Group have already been formed with the backing of Wiltshire Training and Enterprise Council.

A consensus is also emerging in favour of greater co-ordination among FE colleges which already offer some higher education. Degree-level courses could be made available at three or four colleges around the county.

The initiative meets shadow chancellor Gordon Brown's ideal of costs being shared by all "stakeholders" from the individual to the multinational corporation.

"How would the customers pay for the services of its (the University for Industry's) providers?" Mr Brown asked when he unveiled Labour's plans this week. "A consensus is beginning to emerge that the costs of different types of learning need to be shared betweenGovernment, employers andindividuals. "

David Blunkett, shadow education and employment secretary, said the UFI would work with the Open University and other private and public bodies to bring a broad range of skills to the workplace, from the most basic to the most advanced.

"The key will be presenting learning in the most accessible way possible, close to where people live, work and spend their leisure time."

The Wiltshire scheme mirrors these ideals. A three-year action plan will be drawn up in the spring. Researchers have been asked to pay "particular attention to providing equality of opportunity for local students to study varied and wide-ranging courses at local institutions."

Meanwhile, a limited founding company, the Swindon Higher Education Development Group, has been set up which builds on the links scheme. It is backed by the private sector, Wiltshire TEC, the county council and Thamesdown council, which in April becomes Swindon Borough Council, a unitary authority.

Swindon is home to National Power, Allied Dunbar, WH Smith and the European headquarters of American-owned fleet car management company PHH. A National Power executive has been seconded to Wiltshire TEC to help co-ordinate the university project.

In the wake of American companies such as Motorola, PHH set up an in-house "university" in 1990 to provide programmes of cultural change to employees. They can also study subjects such as accountancy and information technology.

But its scope is limited, said Jeremy Hay, PHH human resources director. Without its own university, Swindon was the poor relation of neighbouring Reading, "The difference is very noticeable. We have a distinct lack of IT, technical and language skills here," he said.

"We have to draw in people from across the country, whereas Reading University has a management unit where graduates can develop and further their skills. People are likely to stay there".

Local people had to travel as far as Leeds for relevant university courses and this was costly, he added.

Next year, PHH is sponsoring higher education week in Swindon, encouraging 14-15 year-olds to stay on at college. "If we had a university, a proportion might stay, especially in view of the grants situation," he said.

PHH has a director on the SHEDG board which will enable it to push the initiative. The SHEDG is now prioritising the drawing up of a specification. Universities, colleges and other parties will then be invited to bid, either singly or as a consortium, to provide the university's services.

"We are talking about offering locally-based undergraduate and postgraduate courses, accessed through cable and internet, with full tutorial support, " said Thamesdown's chief education officer Mike Lusty.

Across the country, Trowbridge College serves a more rural population and is connected via IT to smaller satellite institutions. "We don't yet link people in from home into the system though we have the capacity and expect to enable people to dial in within the next 12 months," said the principal George Bright.

Mr Bright's visions are pragmatic and echo the shadow chancellor's. "The real need is to provide more higher education. We have to understand that individuals are investing in their own development. Delivering higher education through IT, with links into the home, is the future."

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