Floated first by Gordon Brown three years ago, it could net a relatively rapid success for New Labour. "What better Millennium project could there be for this country?" asks Sir Geoffrey Holland, former permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Employment and vice- chancellor of Exeter University. "If we set to with a will, before the turn of the century we could surprise ourselves."
The idea is that a University for Industry (UfI) would upgrade the skills and qualifications of the British workforce, which are still thought to be lamentably poor compared with those of many of our international competitors. It is the ideal Blairite project - practical, visionary and achievable - and a fulfilment of the Prime Minister's three priorities: education, education and education.
The UfI would be at the centre of a national learning network extending to workplaces, homes and local learning centres. It would act as a cataloguer and broker of information, materials and courses. It would provide user- friendly services on the Internet and lay on support and guidance for people on the ground (like the OU does). Finally, it would commission new courses where needed and stimulate people to improve their skills through mass marketing of learning opportunities.
The new initiative would not be a new teaching institution competing with what exists already, says Josh Hillman, author of a report on the subject from the left-of-centre think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. Instead it would be a national brokerage service, ensuring that expertise, research and commercial know-how, dispersed among companies and educational institutions, become more generally and easily available.
"Education and training in the UK are not evolving fast enough, and the current institutional framework is inhibiting the extension of opportunities to all those who might benefit," says Mr Hillman in his report. "Provision is compartmentalised, collaboration is cautious, and access to opportunities and to the fragmented array of institutions and technologies that provide them is patchy."
As the hub of a national learning network, the university would promote the exploitation of the latest information and technologies for learning. It would "kitemark" or franchise learning centres, where people could gain access to the network and receive support from mentors and teachers. All needs would be catered for - from basic literacy and numeracy to NVQs, short courses and masters degrees in management.
The idea, which is supported by industry, further and higher education, has yet to be hardened into a plan, but the Open University is ready to run with it. Diana Laurillard, OU pro-vice-chancellor, explains that the Open University is fashioning its own prototype of the University for Industry in Birmingham with local firms, colleges, the training and enterprise council, and the city council. Money is being sought from the European Union under its "Adapt" fund, which provides cash for reskilling. The Birmingham scheme, due to start in January, could form one leg in a nationwide UfI.
Another prototype is being developed in the North-east, where the University of Sunderland, in partnership with local colleges, is setting up its own University for Industry. The idea is that learning centres would be established in village halls, community centres and supermarkets, according to Professor Michael Thorne, a Sunderland pro-vice-chancellor, with people receiving tuition face to face as well as online via the Internet.
The region already has an operation called "Learning World" based at the Gateshead Metro Centre, the largest shopping centre in Europe. With its peach walls and family atmosphere, Learning World has attracted more than 5,000 enrolments in one year on courses from business and computers to languages and health-and-beauty. "If so many people are going to the Metro Centre, that is a lifestyle decision," says Professor Thorne. "We need to move learning closer to their lifestyle if we're to attract people in who have previously been turned off educational institutions."
The creation of a University for Industry is linked with another Labour promise - "learning accounts" to help people pay for updating their skills. The idea here is that the new government would put pounds 150 into the learning accounts of one million individuals in targeted sectors of the economy. Those individuals would be expected to match that sum with pounds 25 of their own money. Employers would also be expected to contribute.
The ideas sound neat, but they are still nebulous. One of the problems with setting up a University for Industry is that vocational training demands practical learning - hours of time watching other people doing things. The OU, by contrast, is a mainly academic activity and can be done by sitting at home and staring at a screen. As Alan Smithers, Professor of Policy Research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, says: "The question is: can the model of the OU be transferred across to the University for Industry idea, because the conditions are rather different? To what extent can practical learning be achieved at a distance?"n IPPR report `University for Industry', by Josh Hillman, pounds 7.50 from 30-32 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7RAReuse content