Army offers the Open University its martial arts

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The Independent Online

Senior military personnel could become part-time lecturers for the Open University under moves to augment the armed forces' links with civilian and commercial life.

The proposal has been made to a defence training review which is being led by John Spellar, armed-forces minister, intended to streamline and modernise military training.

Although at an early stage, the idea is the latest in a growing trend to strengthen the armed forces' ties to the private sector and other public bodies following the Strategic Defence Review.

Paul Beaver, spokesman for the Jane's defence analysts, said: "The Army, in particular, has felt for 30 years they've been forced by the IRA to live behind barbed wire, and they don't want to do that any more."

The Sandhurst officers' academy is to hold leadership conferences with the Confederation of British Industry, the Department for Education and Employment and other industry bodies next month and in October.

With the support of ministers, the Army's training and recruitment agency is also hiring its skills and equipment to generate extra income and make better use of resources and staff. Amanda Coxhead, an agency spokeswoman, said: "Private firms are recognising we have extremely advanced management training skills and equipment which can be made readily available to them."

The MoD has already begun building closer links with the OU, which has 9,000 military students. It recently signed an agreement to give trainee Royal Air Force aircrews credits towards degrees. Sir John Daniel, the OU's vice-chancellor, is on the review steering committee. Proposals to hire military lecturers will fuel claims that spending cuts have forced the armed forces to diversify to earn money. Ministers deny it.

But senior officers say Treasury-inspired cuts are forcing the services to act as if they are businesses and that medical operations, naval exercises and non-essential training have been cancelled because of financial pressures.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories' defence spokesman, said that £800m a year had been cut from the MoD's £22bn budget. Involving the forces in non-military enterprises had to be avoided unless strictly necessary, he said. It could increase the pressure on already overworked officers and unfairly undercut bids by commercial companies. "It does seem rather bizarre to me for the MoD to turn around and say we've got all this spare capacity. The Government has to be very careful. They're in very difficult territory here," Mr Duncan Smith said.

Mr Beaver, who is on Mr Spellar's panel, said the OU proposal was at an early stage but would probably not involve specialists such as engineers or electrical experts holding tutorials at first. "It's a very interesting idea: How can the military help the Open University ... do they have people who can lecture and do modules? There's a lot of interplay."

Forging closer links with the community was good public relations and improved the Army's public standing, Mr Beaver said. The military had "amazing leadership skills" to offer, he added.

"I think there's a real case that can be made for using military expertise. We're not talking about teaching people to drive tanks. We're talking about the basic skills. If it's well-regulated, it should go very well."

An MoD spokesman confirmed that the Army, in particular, was marketing its skills and services, but denied it was budget-driven or would damage operational effectiveness.

"It has always been the case that where we've excess capacity, we're just making it available where the requirement and the capacity exists. There is no requirement for financial reasons to sell our expertise externally."