Education, the Government is constantly telling us, is at the heart of its programme. And central to its policy in this area is the creation of a University for Industry (UfI) charged with fostering a culture of lifelong learning.
Few would disagree with this goal. But though the UfI has been a Labour commitment since well before it came to power, details of what form it will take have been scarce. So scarce, in fact, that last month the Engineering Employers’ Federation went public with a report on focus group research conducted among its members, which outlined numerous concerns.
First, it said, the UfI was too theoretical. No-one really knew what it would be like. Second, business people were worried that it would concentrate on tackling basic skills and the social exclusion that a lack of them can create, rather than industrial competitiveness.
Third, businesses were worried that the courses offered might not be flexible enough to meet their needs. And small firms said they would need financial incentives to get involved.
As if on cue, a flurry of activity began to come from the UfI. A development plan started to make the vision more tangible. And last week, 5,000 organisations were mailed with an invitation to join consortia and bid to become `hubs’ to set up and manage learning centres. At these centres the public will be able to find out what courses are on offer, and use the facilities for on-line study. Later this year a series of conferences will take the message round England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
UfI chairman Lord Dearing stresses that he wants industry to be involved in these hubs: `We are looking for partnerships involving companies, trade associations, trade unions, Tecs, further education colleges, higher education colleges, libraries and so on.’ The UfI is seeking 100 hubs, to develop a network of at least 1,000 centres by March 2001.
This is not an ambitious target, says Dearing. `We may need more. Our purpose is to cover every bit of the land.’ A mini learning centre could be sited in a village hall, or made mobile by equipping a van with computers and a satellite dish. Some may be on company premises.
Around £1bn of public money has been earmarked for the programme from various sources. The target is for 2.5 million people to use the centres by 2002, and to create a demand for a million courses and learning packages by 2004.
Dearing sees social exclusion and competitiveness as different facets of the same thing. `Let’s recognise the economic implications of the fact that 25% of the workforce haven’t the reading and arithmetical skills of an 11-year-old.’ A recent study by the Basic Skills Agency estimates this lack of skills costs the economy £10bn annually. Tackling this makes economic sense, Dearing argues.
`We are very much about creating a whole society at all levels committed to learning. I believe increasingly that companies have got to become mini learning societies to compete in the long term. That’s the essence of competitiveness.’
He stresses that though the UfI’s chairman is appointed by the Secretary of State for Education, the UfI will also maintain links with the DTI. Lord Sainsbury was chairman before him, and Dearing spent much of his career as a DTI civil servant, rising to deputy secretary – next to the top post – before leaving at the age of 49 to become chairman of the Post Office.
Though best known for his work at all levels of education in the past 10 years, he has also held directorships at firms such as IMI, Ericsson and telephone switchboard maker SDX. `My credentials reflect my industry roots,’ he says. `My instincts and my track record are to build bridges between academic learning and vocational learning.’
Small firms will be a priority area for the UfI. In the EEF survey, small businesses said when times are good there is no time to free staff for training, and when times are bad, they can’t afford to train. `They can’t afford not to,’ Dearing says. `Investment in workpeople in ways that are relevant improves productivity.’ He adds that the Government will help pay for employees to to take courses under the UfI’s auspices, as if they were going to a further education college. There will also be cash from the Further Education Funding Council.
Individual Learning Accounts are also in the pipeline, together with plans to offer holders a 20% discount on training.
The UfI will not develop learning materials but will accredit those of others. Dearing admits there is a potential conflict between offering accredited courses and providing the flexibility and bespoke courses firms will need. But the modular approach of National Vocational Qualifications provides a model. `The NVQ world needs to be flexible. I don’t see it as a fundamental problem. We want learning to be relevant and recognised. We’d like people to be able to draw stumps at any time with recognition for what they’ve achieved up to that point.’
He concludes that in the UfI `there’s understanding of industry and what it wants, and a wish to collaborate’. Employers should get involved for reasons long understood in countries such as Germany and Japan: `It will improve their bottom line,’ Dearing says simply. `We have a long-standing national need to increase the skill levels and knowledge levels of all our workpeople.’
Lord Dearing at a glance
First job: clerk, Hull Employment Exchange
Education: BSc in Economics, Hull University
Key appointments: deputy secretary at the DTI; chairman of the Post Office; chairman of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority; chairman of Dearing committee of inquiry into the future of higher education
Current job: Chairman of the University for Industry
Interests: Car boot sales, gardening, postal history