It is a market worth pounds 20bn in the UK, and the fastest- growing part of the sector is 'open learning', allowing people to update their skills without being confined to a classroom.
For companies and individuals this is flexible and cost-effective: on average, the costs of open learning are 60 per cent of those of conventional training.
It began with books and booklets, followed by tapes and videos, but the sector is becoming increasingly hi-tech. Compact and laserdiscs, with interactive multimedia techniques, are pushing back the frontiers of learning.
The Government has awakened to its potential. The Department of Employment is using new technology in its drive to help to boost the nation's skills base. Its Learning and Methods branch has a presentation centre in Sheffield, where state-of-the-art technology is on display.
As part of its mission to train, the department is sponsoring 13 projects on the leading edge of the sector, including the world's first 'virtual reality' model of a skeleton. The computer-based interactive system will be used to teach subjects ranging from basic anatomy to intricate surgical procedures.
A training package financed by the department is being used to help to train or re- train cytology screeners, who examine and assess cervical smears. Trainees have access to 3,500 slide images, which are focused on screen as if under a microscope.
Rover has set up a subsidiary to deal with the group's training requirements. Fred Coultas, managing director of Rover Learning Business, said: 'In an increasingly competitive international marketplace, winning means a well-trained flexible workforce. That's where open learning is key, delivering consistently high-quality training across an organisation.'
Last year, Rover and 'its people' invested more than pounds 2m and 50,000 employee- hours in open learning training.
At Henley Management Centre, open learning and new technology have been vigorously embraced. It has participants in management programmes in 80 countries, and 18 associate organisations, from Trinidad to Hong Kong and from Malta to South Africa.
Open or 'distance' learning from the centre is growing rapidly, with more than 4,500 people using it to study for an MBA. Colin Carnall, director of programmes at the college, said: 'We are trying to create the widest possible international network.
'Distance learning, plus the flexibilities new technology offers, provide us with the opportunity to become a new kind of business school, networked and international, which takes its work away from the campus and into the world of business.'
Company consortiums take places on the MBA course, and computer conferencing enables students to interact with tutors and fellow students in a waythat would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Students can even take a break from studies to check into the 'coffee room' on screen, interacting with fellow students and tutors.
The huge growth in MBA programmes has fuelled a new need - equipping people to teach the courses. Three years ago, Henley launched a Doctor of Business Administration programme, and 200 people in Britain, the Netherlands, Singapore and France are now in the process of qualifying.
The Open University has one of the most extensive MBA programmes in Europe. Its Open Business School now accounts for an eighth of all new enrolments on MBA courses in the UK, and 40 per cent of the total enrolment for distance learning.
There is a hunger for management training in Eastern Europe, too - 20 Hungarian managers are now studying for their MBAs through the OU. There are 2,600 managers in Eastern and Central Europe taking OBS courses, and the school predicts numbers will rise to nearly 6,000 by 1996.
Open learning has come of age. The Department of Employment is just one of the companies and training providers setting out stalls at an exhibition next month at the Business Design Centre in London.
Open Learning and Flexible Training in the Nineties is sponsored by Rover and the Open University in association with the Independent and the Independent on Sunday.
As the concept of a job for life is fading, the phenomenal growth in open-learning MBAs shows that ambitious careerists are realising that there is more to CDs than replacing vintage vinyl collections.
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