Extra £74m funding for University for Industry

Workplace training via the internet is set to take off later this year with the launch of the University for Industry. But will it live up to the expectations of engineering employers?

The University for Industry, designed to encourage lifelong learning and improve the skills base of the UK workforce, was given a boost last week with the announcement of a new £74m government grant. Last year, the organisation received £44m in government funding.

The announcement coincided with the launch of the UfI’s website, learndirect. This will allow people access to training courses via the internet. More than 80% of the university’s 250 courses will be available online.

Speaking to an audience of more than 100 business leaders at the announcement of the funding, education minister Baroness Blackstone said the UfI would work in partnership with business. Learning would be provided at work, to ensure that the UK’s workforce remains ahead in the technology boom, she added.

The organisation, now known as the UfI to avoid sounding elitist, has 250 development centres, where people will be able to pick up information and register for courses, based around 56 `hubs’. The hubs are made up of partnerships of colleges, local authorities, trade unions and companies. The Engineering and Marine Training Authority will run one hub, which will provide access to a network of learning facilities to employees across the engineering sector.

Ian Lucraft, head of learning centre policy at the UfI, says the scheme aims to provide flexible online training schemes for businesses.

Courses can be taken in bite-sized chunks, which will allow firms to identify skill areas needing attention and help them to cut down on long and expensive external training courses. Employers will only pay for the section of training material they need, rather than buying entire courses. In this way, the scheme should be particularly useful to smaller firms that find it difficult to release staff for long periods.

`We are trying to engage new learners,’ Lucraft says. `The engineering sector has a large number of small organisations where there are lots of people not learning, and we want to bring a broad range of skills and learning products into their life and work.’

Rather than having to sign up for an entire course, students can simply select the section that they need or find most interesting. The courses offered will range from basic numeracy to financial management and creating intranets.

`There isn’t another operation like this which will bring high-volume, high-quality, engaging education products into the lives of ordinary men and women,’ says Lucraft.

Between its full launch this autumn and 2003, the UfI hopes 2.5 million people a year will use the helpline and 1 million will use the learning services. By spring 2001, it plans to have 1,000 online learning centres.

The development centres have been established in locations that will provide easy access to the service, such as railway stations, football clubs, libraries, business parks and places of work.

The government has also granted the UfI a further £10m for its learndirect information and advice helpline.

But has all this won over the UfI’s critics? The Engineering Employers’ Federation last year published a report which said the UfI was too theoretical and there was too little information on how it would work. It also claimed the UfI was too focused on basic skills and tackling social exclusion rather than increasing industry’s competitiveness.

Anne Bailey, the EEF’s head of education and training, says there is still a lot to be done before the scheme becomes fully operational in the autumn, particularly in marketing its services.

Nevertheless, the EEF seems to have been converted. `It will complement existing skills training by taking a different approach,’ says Bailey. `It will give people more freedom. They will have a much more extensive choice of how, where and when they want to learn.’