Dorothy Walker visits a resource centre that offers the latest in online learning
Student Matthew starts up his desktop publishing software. Around him, friends chatter and swap stories as they work at 150 state-of-the- art PCs in a sleek building designed by Sir Richard Rogers. This is Slough, 1996, and we're in the university library.

The Paul Hamlyn Learning Resource Centre is the new centre-piece of the Thames Valley University campus. When Tony Blair attends its opening on Wednesday not only will he see the hi-tech resources on site, but he will also hear how they are to be the focus of new techniques for remote education.

Even by today's changing standards, this university, formerly the Polytechnic of West London, is an unusual seat of learning. Of its 26,000 students - average age mid-thirties - 64 per cent are part-timers. In full-time jobs, and often sponsored by their employers, they learn "with the university, not at it".

Those who join the campus at Slough will find a vast, open-plan barn where they can learn from CD-Roms, publish their essays, edit videos and research on the Internet, assisted by seven computer experts from ICL. There is also a library of traditional print, although it is policed by a new breed of librarian, who likes noise.

Mike Fitzgerald, vice-chancellor, says: "Students are social creatures - they will help and communicate with each other. It won't be a quiet room."

Use of the computers and the Net is free, though printing costs 10p a sheet. That may sound like a slow way for a university that describes itself as "one of the poorest in the country" to recover its pounds 4.2m investment, but TVU has other plans to make the technology pay. It will earn its keep as the the hub for a series of tailor-made educational "intranets".

Andy Wolfe, head of development, says: "People are looking for information in different formats now - not just books and booklists. We are trying to create the old scholar-librarian type of model by employing cyberlibrarians, who can pull together information that is published on the Net, on CD- Rom, in databases. They will bring it into electronic libraries on the intranet, and then make it learning material by adding comments and linking it to specific courses."

Among the first to benefit will be student nurses, based in hospitals, and roving district nurses, who will be able to tap into information on prescribing drugs. "We have to reach out to them, and take the knowledge base to their work," says Mr Wolfe.

Revenue will come from running similar networks for the university's corporate partners, which range from major airlines to banking and insurance houses. Mr Wolfe says: "If employees go on a course, you spend a lot of money bringing people together for a short time. We want to use an intranet to keep that community of learning together - to keep it fed with well- documented and well-annotated information. It brings the confidence that people get from being together in a learning environment back into the workplace. Some of our clients see this as giving them their competitive edge."

"As a university, we have to look at this as a business. "We are now in very good commercial shape. For a poor university, we have come a long way."