Five institutions that put a premium on widening access to learning shared awards from British Telecom worth more than Pounds 400,000 this week.
Lord Dearing, chairman of the University for Industry, presented the five (see side bar left for details) with their BT Higher Education Awards in London on Monday.
He praised the winning projects, selected from a field of 85, for their commitment to widening access for a wide variety of groups from disadvantaged children to Muslim women and girls, and the deaf communities.
Lord Dearing echoed sentiments expressed by Sir Iain Vallance, BT chairman, on the price of change: "The future does not comes cheap."
This was especially true of education. A highly educated and flexibly skilled workforce was absolutely essential to the country's future.
Education that produced excellence required very high investment at the beginning but also continued and substantial investment.
"This is a game in which we are involved for life," he said.
Without substantial and continued investment in education throughout an individual's life, then the competitive advantage enjoyed by the United Kingdom economy over those of the rapidly developing Chinese, southern European and other world market sectors would disappear.
These economies had already seen the potential benefits of a more flexible approach to education and had realised that their future prosperity and economic challenge to the more developed nations depended on the success of learning throughout life.
Lord Dearing said the UK also could no longer afford to allow a substantial proportion of its potential workforce to be without the most basic skills.
"For example, seven million people are unable to locate information in a Yellow Pages directory," he said, and this low skills level was costing the economy an estimated Pounds 10 billion a year in lost opportunity.
The solution was to fund projects, such as the BT HE awards, that promoted wider access, strengthened the concept of lifelong learning and made best use of information and communications technologies. The convergence of these technologies with their intrinsic strengths as learning tools would need to be fully exploited by learning institutions in the early years of the next century.
The five award winners also showed the need for learning institutions to rapidly develop partnerships among themselves and with industry and commerce on the basis of enlightened self-interest, Lord Dearing said. The areas of interest addressed by the bids broadly matched those where key funding council cash could be extracted as well as European funding.
The benefits of wide-ranging partnerships were emphasised by Mel Whewell, project manager of NU-LINE. The University of Newcastle project, awarded Pounds 100,000 in 1996/97, enabled job seekers to access the university's career service from sites in the county via videophones.
Ms Whewell said that the trials had been successful and had attracted nearly Pounds 90,000 from the European Regional Development Fund.This had enabled the project to extend its schedule from two years to four years.
The project now used videoconferencing equipment installed in libraries and careers centres. It was being used by the local communities as well as small to medium-sized businesses.
Sandy Walkington, BT's head of corporate affairs, announced that the awards next year would be jointly sponsored by BT and The THES.