Pick up a degree with the groceries

University courses are available off the peg at Gateshead's giant retail park, says Fran Abrams

Maybe shopping centres have this effect on people. They certainly seem to get carried away in Learning World, a new centre offering education- while-you-spend (or work) at the Metro Centre, Gateshead, one of Europe's largest retail parks.

The man who came to fit the photocopier signed up for a computer course, so did the people who put in the alarm system. One of the builders' wives is to start learning a language and the vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, a partner in the project, was spotted last week booking a morning's introduction to the Internet for herself and her daughter.

Next door to Ikea and decorated in strikingly similar blue and yellow hues, the newly built, single-storey brick building could easily be another chain store or office block. In fact, its wares are further education and university courses, though its backers admit to harbouring visions of a chain of Learning Worlds straddling the country, from Meadow Hall to Brent Cross, nestling next to the McDonald's or the multiplex cinema.

A joint project between Sunderland University and Gateshead College, it has recruited more than 500 students in less than two months since it opened. Sir Ron Dearing has promised to visit as part of his inquiry into the future of higher education, a project that is committed to breaking the mould of the traditional three-year degree and looking for new ways of delivering university courses.

Brenda Carr just came to Learning World to look around after her husband heard about it. She was so impressed that she signed up for four computer courses plus keyboard skills, GCSE English and basic counselling. Her friend Susan Milne is doing the same, though she takes a Saturday morning IT lesson with her 10 year-old son instead of English. Both plan to move on to a certificated course in counselling soon.

Mrs Carr, who was born with cerebral palsy and left school at 16, says she has not done any formal learning for 22 years. But now, retired from her local government clerical job through ill health, she has been encouraged by her tutor to apply to do a creative writing degree at Sunderland University. Staff at Learning World, which is easy for Mrs Carr to use because it has no stairs, say she may be able to do her lessons and tutorials there, too.

She has sent an account of her experiences at school to Radio 4's Does He Take Sugar? programme for the disabled, and its producer has expressed an interest in the work.

Only two months after going back into education, Mrs Carr is at the centre nearly every day, doing her homework if she does not have a class. She feels she has come a long way in a short time.

"It's snowballed," she says. "I can't believe it myself. I used to go to the health club every day, but it came to the stage where I thought there had to be more to life than that and housework."

As well as offering education to people such as Mrs Carr and Mrs Milne, Learning World also offers tailor-made courses to employers: 120 members of the Tyne and Wear fire brigade have started a computer course. The centre has 15 teaching rooms, a computing suite, an eight-place creche due to open within a few weeks and two-way videos that allow students to take part in seminars happening 10 miles away in Sunderland.

Its courses range from French for beginners to masters degrees. With more than 6,000 people working in the Metro Centre and with 26 million shoppers passing through each year, the new venture is confident that business will grow.

Dr Anne Wright, Sunderland's vice-chancellor, is certain the scheme will grow. "We are taking the learning centre to a place where people come together and is close to something they like to do," she says.

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