The government's planned University for Industry can provide the next upward shift in higher education participation rates, says one of the directors of the pilot project to be launched next week.
Mike Thorne, pro vice chancellor of Sunderland University, said: "Access courses have probably been taken as far as they can go. We need a step, change, jump to take us into new areas and the UFI can do it."
The UFI is the only post-compulsory education initiative already guaranteed extra government funding apart from the University of the Highlands and Islands. Education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone will speak at Monday's pilot launch.
The project, run jointly by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the University of Sunderland, will cover the county of Tyne and Wear and adjoining rural areas of Northumberland. "We have chosen the Northeast because it is an area of very low 16-plus participation," said Josh Hillman, project co-director and author of the IPPR study University for Industry.
The pilot will operate through a network of 28 centres, each linked to a college or other course provider. "The aim is to locate learning opportunities to fit people's lifestyle," says Professor Thorne, whose university's Learning World centre has been running in the Gateshead MetroCentre since early 1996. Locations include Sunderland Football Club's new stadium, businesses such as computer power supply specialists Lite-On, colleges, schools and community centres such as the John Marley Centre in the deprived west end of Newcastle. Marketing will focus particularly on groups with low participation rates, such as the unemployed and unqualified.
The pilot will concentrate on business skills programmes. "We need to avoid too much complexity in a pilot," said Professor Thorne, who emphasises that a full-scale UFI will offer a much wider choice. He hopes that around 5,000 new students will take the opportunities provided. The project will be evaluated after 12 months.
Some students will be expected to pay for their courses. "There are a variety of funding sources but the UFI model includes direct payment," said Mr Hillman. He added that the development of learning accounts was crucial to the long-term development of UFI.