The University of Glamorgan is developing a raft of programmes that could help foster business regeneration in the valleys of South Wales.
As proposals take shape for a super-university created through mergers with the University of Wales Institute Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil College, Glamorgan believes that it is possible to encourage radical change through information technology.
Alongside its merger plans, the university is developing a corporate approach to distance and campus-based learning that would see it deliver economic and broader cultural benefits to a region devastated by the destruction of the coal and steel industries.
Glamorgan's confidence stems in part from vice-chancellor Adrian Webb's commitment to first-class teaching and the research that he believes supports it. The institution has won substantial support from European development funding and the Welsh Assembly.
It also has the backing of the assembly's minister for economic development, Andrew Davies, who sees it as one strand in a matrix that forms the assembly's "Knowledge Economy Challenge".
At the close of the Business Week in Wales event in Cardiff last month, Mr Davies said that both he and Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, wanted education institutions to play a key role in helping the economy reach "critical mass".
"Wales can't compete in production of commodity-priced goods. There has to be value added, and the role of higher and further education is crucial here," Mr Davies said.
In its "Winning Wales" ten-year strategy, the assembly pledged to create 135,000 jobs in the knowledge economy. That goal would be achieved only if higher and further education institutions rose to the challenges of wider participation and the development of innovation and entrepreneurship, Mr Davies said.
Aldwyn Cooper, Glamorgan pro vice-chancellor and professor of learning development, is helping to fuel the regeneration process as chair of eCollege Wales, one of the largest e-learning ventures in Europe.
Professor Cooper - a cognitive psychologist who has 30 years' experience in the US, the Open University and the private commercial sphere - said that eCollege Wales was a deliberate testing of the flexible-learning philosophy and of costing/pricing issues. Glamorgan predicts that the largest markets in e-learning will be "clicks and mortar" - online programmes backed by face-to-face tutorials and pastoral support delivered at a network of sites rather than at a work or home terminal.
Professor Cooper said: "The aim is to deliver what learners cannot find for themselves - it is not supply-side driven. This means that you have to provide a huge amount of customer care."
This shift is emphasised by Ron Cobley, head of information system and e-learning services.
"We are applying the commercial lessons of customer relationship management in education. This enables us to ensure that we are providing a service that suits the particular learner in terms of access, location and length of the course, its size, content and format. "We can monitor learners' activities and develop a relationship with them so that we can suggest that they try a course suited to their particular learning style, availability or career aspiration, or personal interest," Dr Cobley said.
Professor Cooper added: "From the pilot scheme we had invaluable feedback that allowed us to refine the system. We are hiring 20 more staff to develop the service further, including support, although we have found the level of self-motivation means that only 50 per cent of the budget for support has been used."
eCollege Wales has picked up the challenge to create partnerships laid down by the Welsh Assembly in its higher education white paper. Glamorgan is cementing course delivery deals with Bridgend, Llandrillo, Sir Gr, Pembrokeshire, Gwent, Trinity Carmarthen and Pontypridd colleges of further education.
The university is also addressing the government's development aims through groundbreaking access and inclusion projects, two of which are Network75 and Gates, which aims to help those who are excluded from economic activity by lack of formal education and skills.
Glamorgan's Centre for Lifelong Learning is to establish Gates in several locations in conjunction with local authorities, providing buildings for a wide range of activities and events, equipment, development workers and ancillary staff. The first six authorities in the scheme are Merthyr Tydfil, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Bridgend and Caerphilly.
Their success will depend on targeting communities through informal learning and cultural production. Courses and qualifications will follow.
Network75 was developed by lecturers Steve Thomas and Steve Lloyd in Glamorgan's School of Technology to encourage companies to employ top engineering and technology students. Undergraduates are placed at a host company while studying part time for up to five years. "Students can get a bursary of up to £9,000 and there are no fees," Mr Thomas said.
"Companies know they've got a people problem and their growth is going to be limited by this lack of skills. They are prepared to pay well for a solution."
Allied to these two developments are the Gateway to Solutions services headed by Alun Hughes and the GTi hot-desk centre for new enterprises in Abercynon. A significant development in Dr Hughes' remit is the launch of Help Wales, a European Union-funded initiative that gives small businesses access to expert support and advice from Wales' 13 higher education institutions.