UFI flagship loses its crew

March 20, 1998

MINISTERS disbanded the advisory group behind the government's flagship University for Industry more than three months ago. Alienated members complained this week that the details of the project have been rushed by civil servants and are ill-conceived.

Although a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment insisted this week the UfI design and implementation advisory group was "alive and well", a letter to its chairman, David Brown, from higher education minister Tessa Blackstone, shows that the group's work was effectively halted on December 2 1997.

A "shift in focus", Baroness Blackstone said, meant that it would "no longer appear appropriate for the group to hold formal, plenary meetings in the immediate future". Members have confirmed that they have had no formal input into the detailed proposals since Christmas.

Chris Humphries, chief executive of the TEC National Council, said: "The group doesn't really exist any more as far as I'm concerned."

Diana Laurillard, pro-vice chancellor at the Open University, said: "I have had almost nothing to do with the planning. I don't know who has been doing the work and they have never referred back to me."

Some group members, including Professor Laurillard, have, however, been involved in the planning through three task groups asked by Baroness Blackstone to "inform" further work. But the task groups' work consisted of only "three or four meetings", said Professor Laurillard, and they reported to ministers in January.

Since then, all preparation has been carried out by a civil service "prospectus team", with management consultants Mckinsey and Co. Their overdue prospectus will be published later this month, the DFEE said.

Some of the original group's members are concerned about its content. Professor Laurillard said the draft prospectus was "disappointing", with "a lot of gaps".

She said the UfI will have no funding model and the prospectus gives no indications about how it will "sustain itself". "There is the germ of a good idea but we have not got to the nub of the work," she said.

Another group member, who did not want to be named, said: "The advisory group did almost nothing for the four months before it was disbanded. All the detailed work has been done since January."

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said: "I'm anxious that this is an idea worthy of support but it will be stillborn without significant support from the government in terms of planning and public money."

David Brown acknowledged that the group had not been at "the workface" of the detailed planning. But he said: "An advisory group advises and a government does. The UfI is arguably the single most important educational initiative in our lifetimes."

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