What’s in a Name?

The University for industry (UfI) is a serious misnomer. Dick Evans brings employers and colleges into the debate.

The Government’s Green Paper ‘The Learning Age’ highlighted a number of initiatives to develop lifelong learning. Two of these will become a reality – as the Government, and particularly Gordon Brown, is committed to them – the University for Industry and Individual Learning Accounts.

The Green Paper projected a vision of the University for Industry that would exploit the newer technologies to boost productivity, employability and competitiveness.

Although this seems exciting and innovative, many questions are still unanswered. Even when the Ufl Pathfinder Prospectus was published, it was not clear how this initiative would evolve and become a reality rather than a virtual reality. Consultative conferences and seminars have been staged by employer organisations highlighting a number of issues and concerns. People are still uncertain how the aims of the Ufl will be developed and implemented and what it would add to the way employers currently work with colleges, universities and other providers.

Strategic jigsaw.

The Ufl is just one element in the Government’s “The Learning Age” strategy. Other elements include Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs), Learning Direct free-phone help-line and the National Skills Tasks Force. The Ufl will be fully launched in 2000 and between now and then a series of pilot projects will be actively funded through a series of European Social Funds (ESF), ADAPT and Objective 4 programmes.

The Green Paper stated that The University for Industry ‘will create a new kind of private/public partnership to boost productivity and competitiveness in business and to acquire and enhance individuals’ knowledge and skills levels and hence to enable individuals to improve their employability. It will have two strategic objectives:

  • to stimulate demand for lifelong learning amongst businesses and individuals, and
  • to promote the availability of, and improve access to, relevant high quality and innovative learning in particular through the use of information and communications technologies.

Therefore the Ufl will be an organisation that will exploit and capitalise on open and distance learning. One initial problem for employers and individuals is the very use of the title ‘University for Industry’. It most certainly will not be a university in the strict sense, bearing in mind the sensitivities of that title that were highlighted in the Dearing Review into Higher Education and it will most certainly not be exclusively for industry. The title itself causes confusion and must be clarified as soon as possible. Many employers and individuals interpret it as being in the business of producing graduates and associated qualifications – degrees and higher degrees. However, when you read the Green Paper and the Prospectus, they continually state it is for everyone – the Ufl will be a brokering service, helping a wide range of individuals and organisations to identify their learning needs and then linking/connecting them to the most suitable learning resource. This might be a college, university, private provider, school, library or local learning centre. It is thus difficult to understand why the initiative, which is committed to widening participation and reflecting social inclusion, should be called a “University” and “for Industry”, terms which carry a historical resonance of exclusion and narrowness. The title of the organisation must be clarified to reduce further confusion and to locate it more pointedly in the lifelong learning landscape. The Government wish to see it become part of everyday life and clearly states that in the first few years of its existence, it expects the Ufl to focus on the following priorities, which, they argue, are likely to be in large scale demand:

  • Basic skills.
  • Information and communications technologies.
  • Small and medium sized businesses (SMEs).
  • Specific sectors – automotive components, multimedia, environmental technology and services and distributive and retail trades.

The University for Industry, using and exploiting modern technologies, will be a broker for high quality learning products and services and make these available at home, in the workplace and at learning centres throughout the country. This approach will break down traditional barriers to learning by making provision more flexible and accessible and also stimulate new markets by offering clear, reliable information, advice and by providing and facilitating learning opportunities for people to learn at their own pace and in convenient locations. The University for Industry therefore should help people and businesses to identify learning opportunities and to access these in the right form, in the right place, at the right price and at the right time. In order to offer widespread access opportunities, not only at home, a network of learning centres will be established to offer access to people who would not have the technologies either at home or in the workplace.

Quite rightly, partnerships and collaboration are to be encouraged. It is the lack of more precise detail on partnerships that causes concern amongst a number of organisations. The prospectus makes it very clear that the Ufl will not attempt to provide everything itself, but through partnership will bring together public and private sectors to meet the Government’s aspirations for lifelong learning and widening participation in education and training.

The Pathfinder Prospectus outlines how the two strategic objectives will be realised:

* analyse the needs of the market and potential customers.
* drive demand for learning through mass marketing and promotion.
* provide and direct people to information, advice and guidance.
* ensure the availability of and connect customers to high quality learning programmes.
* commission new content to bridge gaps between supply and demand.
* and ensure the quality of products and services is assessed thoroughly.

Individual Learning Accounts.

In recent consultation seminars on Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs), many of the participants considered the split between the Ufl and ILAs to be artificial. The ultimate success of the Individual Learning Accounts will critically depend upon the success of the Ufl and vice versa. One critical aspect is the purchasing power of the ILA and how that is established through contributions from the employer, the individual and the State. A number of complex issues are attached to the way the individual, or indeed the company, decide to spend the Individual Learning Account. They would have to see value in the learning opportunity and the qualifications that attach to it. This, in turn, begs questions about the nature of the qualifications. Up to now the qualifications framework has been seen to be rigid and about providing full awards. In order to develop a more flexible and responsive framework, there needs to be a provider infrastructure which offers unitised qualifications. The University for Industry in conjunction with its partners who will deliver training must accept the importance of ‘bite-sized qualifications’ (and provision). This then has a direct correlation with bite-sized funding approaches which would make it easier for individuals and employers to purchase access to qualifications. There needs to be a much greater clarity of thinking about the development of ILAs and their relationship with the University for Industry.

Problems and opportunities.

It seems the Ufl is basically aiming at the bottom 30% of the workforce and thus the name ‘university’ gives a totally wrong message for this target group of potential learners. Many people are still unclear how the Ufl will be configured. No doubt we will have a headquarters located somewhere in the UK connected to all the partners, whether these be schools, colleges, universities, libraries, local learning centres, the workplace and possibly, ultimately, the home. These partners will be complemented by forty technological centres of excellence that will also be connected to the Ufl.

If the Ufl just adds another layer of provision, it could weaken or dilute existing good relationships that many employers have with their colleges and universities. Perhaps it will be just another directory and signposting organisation, in a sense an enhanced training access point (TAP) but on the Internet. If so, it will have to be kept up-to-date – a very complex and costly venture.

Many companies already have excellent relationships with their local colleges and universities and will have to be convinced that the Ufl, through its information and guidance arrangements, is better.

There are concerns over the emphasis on information and communications technology, bearing in mind that there have been so many expensive disasters with such large networks, eg air traffic control, health authorities or finance and banking. Very often developments in ICT take a long time to be effective and are very expensive. Employers are worried about the use of this technology for the kinds of target audience that seemed to be being identified. Many individuals in the bottom 30% will have difficulty in coping as independent learners and will need a great deal of one-to-one support throughout their studies. Indeed many might be IT illiterate and that again could present problems and frustrations for them as well as their sponsoring employer.

A number of employers are worried about some of the partners being advocated. Use will be made of existing providers, particularly colleges, universities and further enhancement to in-house employee development programmes. Clearly a number of very big employers could see themselves as designated centres of excellence but there will be difficulty with small and medium enterprises engaging fully in the initiative. There are already a number of organisations trying to help employers develop their workforces -TECs, Chambers of Commerce and Business Links. Small businesses are confused by the range and level of support and Ufl may be seen as yet another one.

Who is to pay for Ufl is another concern. Profit margins are being cut and companies, particularly on the manufacturing side, are fighting to survive. There needs to be much greater thought given to the pricing strategy for the Ufl and indeed the pricing mix to individuals, employers and providers. Equally, employers feel that vigorous quality assurance mechanisms needed to be established. Colleges and universities are now subjected to a number of quality assurance interventions and any signposting to a provider must carry with it, for the employer, a guarantee that the highest possible quality standards will be operated by that provider for their learners.

If the Ufl is to be successful it should establish a very effective national, local, regional and sectoral provision under a single banner that would really help to signpost individuals and employers to local, regional and sectoral centres for information and advice . With the developing digital technology in homes, libraries and companies, an integrated network could help to facilitate learning opportunities for all.

The college view.

Many employers have asked what the role of the colleges of FE would be and whether they are on board with this initiative of Ufl. Many were appreciative of the colleges’ contribution in the past and did not want to see them marginalised as a result of the establishment of the Ufl. Colleges are most certainly positive about the initiative, provided that they are seen to be a major partner in its development and implementation. The sector wishes to be involved in this critical development time whilst the Ufl is in its formative stage. FE would wish to see Ufl being part of its core business and not just a short-term bolt-on activity. FE has a long and credible history and well established infrastructures to respond to the challenge to widen participation and develop a culture of lifelong learning. The sector and its constituent colleges must broadcast their existence and successes and how best they can bring these to the University for Industry. The sector must be proactive and make certain that the Ufl does not reinvent FE by developing a similar parallel organisation.

Colleges must think hard about their provision and how awards are managed. The current debate highlights the importance of unitisation of the curriculum and the need for a credit framework – the ‘small bite’ awards which are needed and more closely match the expectations and aspirations of employers as well as individuals. FE needs to lobby the awarding bodies and the Funding Council over current rigidities.

At the moment, time-served linear full courses are the priority? and scant attention is given to short courses or partial awards.

Colleges must also make certain that their facilities are configured, organised and managed in a way that will facilitate learning in the new age with its emphasis on information technology. Colleges need to further enhance their student support systems to help students who are studying increasingly at a distance or in isolation. There needs to be a sensible balance of personal contact as well as more independent learning systems based obviously around information technology and communication. Many colleges have well established flexible/distance learning provision which could add value very quickly to the development of Ufl and its approach to delivery.

Course and service information must be up to date, valid and reliable and information provided to the sign-posting arrangements which the Ufl will develop. Colleges also need to think hard about what the pricing regimes will be, whether or not an investment in Ufl will provide value for money over existing ways of marketing and publicising its provision to employers, to individuals and society in general.

It is important that the concerns and issues raised by employers, employer organisations and colleges are considered carefully. The Ufl must be transparent in its developments. Hopefully the pilots that are now underway will provide further evidence to be sifted and analysed and will ultimately shape the University for Industry – preferably under a new name.

FOOTNOTE. I was approached by a senior University person after this article was published and told it did in fact bring about a down playing of the title UfI.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *