It is now more than nine months since Baroness Blackstone formally launched the joint University of Sunderland and Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) pilot of the University for Industry.
At an exit conference being held today at the university's St Peters campus in Sunderland, we will share with delegates the successes of the pilot and some of the lessons the project team has felt it has learned. More detailed information will become available thanks to a DFEE-sponsored independent evaluation and a planned IPPR book involving my co-director, Josh Hillman, and the project manager Helen Milner.
The pilot set itself three goals: to conform absolutely to the model in Josh Hillman's book (and latterly in the University for Industry Pathfinder Prospectus); to reach 5,000 learner registrations during its lifetime; and to engage significantly with small and medium enterprises.
Sticking to the real UfI model is not easy as is demonstrated by the majority of so-called UfI pilots. Many fail at the first hurdle in that the UfI is a brokerage and absolutely not a provider. It is so easy to fall into that trap and we would have done so had we not had such vigorous and determined college partners. The target of 5,000 learner registrations was exceeded a couple of weeks ago. Our SME penetration has been less successful.
Right from the start, it was clear to the project team that if a step change in participation from under-represented socio-economic groups was to be achieved, a radical new marketing approach would be needed. We decided to follow the example of the insurance industry, which reconstructed itself from the model of home visits in the 1950s for "guidance and counselling" sessions on policies, into a much more accessible business operated over the telephone.
Our potential UfI pilot students would therefore be invited to ring our centre (0800 26 26 39) which is open at just about the same times (including evenings and weekends) as the Direct Line insurance line. Posters on buses had messages along the lines of "Learn More, Earn More".
We tried to hammer home the message that an A level earns you on average about Pounds 10 an hour and a degree about Pounds 20 an hour in the job market. Having registered students on-line and passed then to their chosen providers, we would telephone them on completion of the course and ask if all went well. If it did, we asked if that student would like to register on another course.
Given the success of the simple commercial idea of seeking repeat business, we were emboldened to try telesales - yes, ringing people up at random to see if they wanted a UfI programme.
We feared the worst, so this was a task given to senior staff. The phone book was opened and we aimed to call 1,000 people starting with a Mr Abbott. The response was indeed staggering, but not in the way we expected. No one was rude. Almost one in four wanted more information. Many said it was wonderful that someone had called them to invite them into education when they themselves felt that education did not want them. It was one of the most stunning lessons we have learned from the pilot.
An initial analysis of our 5,000 registrations seems to justify the radical approach: it appears that our penetration has been greatest where deprivation is greatest. This analysis will need to be completed with the utmost care - it may be that we are on to something.
We have learned many lessons about partnership. For example, it is one thing to establish trust and an agreed approach at very senior management level, and quite another for this to be the case at lower levels. Commitment to a new idea may vary as you travel down the hierarchy of an institution and it is an important issue for the future of UfI to work out how to manage that.
Right from the start, working with SMEs has been an especially demanding aspect. Where we have secured students, those students have been very pleased with the offer and indeed more than one in two of them have taken up another programme.
But penetration has been lower than we would have liked. It has been difficult to organise links between commercial training providers and broadcasters on one side and small companies on the other. And partnering large organisations brings with it commercial inertia quite as strong as we experience in universities.
The experience of the last nine months makes me believe more than ever that the UfI could unleash unsatisfied demand. As the pilot has gone on, it has become clearer, however, that this latent demand is unlikely to be for our existing educational "product".
Minister Kim Howells has used the word "deconstruction" to describe the potential effect of the UfI. If what he means is that a successful UfI will mean that educational institutions are forced to change, we agree with him. If there is latent demand, and we firmly believe there is, our experience with the Sunderland pilot strongly suggests that it is not for what is currently on offer.
Michael Thorne is vice-principal at Napier University and joint director of the University for Industry pilot project with Josh Hillman of IPPR.