Ministers must pledge hundreds of millions of pounds more than they have already committed to expansion in further education if they are to realise their vision for a lifelong learning revolution, leaders of the University for Industry have warned.
In an interview with The THES, UfI chief executive Anne Wright and chairman Lord Dearing said the government "is content" with the UfI's huge student expansion projections. And they called on ministers to back up their commitment to the flagship lifelong learning project with major increases in further education funding.
The UfI expects to have engaged one million new learners by 2003-04, and aims to stimulate demand for 600,000 UfI-kitemarked "learning opportunities" a year in the longer term. The UfI is clear that these will be additional students, and its strategic plan warns that the expansion process "cannot simply amount to a process of re-badging existing learners as UfI learners".
Lord Dearing said: "The potential numbers brought through the UfI go way beyond the government's announced expansion targets, and I'm hoping to exceed our predictions."
Ministers have already committed themselves to an additional 700,000 students in further education by 2001-02, pledging an additional Pounds 584 million for 2000-01. Cash for expansion in 2001-02 and subsequent years has yet to be announced.
Lord Dearing says much more money will be needed. "There is no point in creating a UfI and claiming the objective is to create a learning society without funding it," he said. "All the signs are that the government is taking this very seriously."
Lord Dearing said that the government has already invested too much capital funding in the project to back down on further funding. "Imagine if the UfI is launched and it is so successful that there is not enough money to meet the demand?" he said.
"The government will be responsive to the demand - it doesn't make sense to put up huge capital funds without supporting the learners."
The UfI expects that most UfI learners will be funded through existing mechanisms, mainly the Further Education Funding Council, or whatever national funding council replaces the FEFC following the government's white paper in July.
It is estimated that each of the annual 600,000 UfI "learning opportunities" will cost Pounds 500, demanding approximately Pounds 300 million annual public funding, excluding any employers' or individuals' contributions. "The FEFC needs extra money," said Lord Dearing. "The government has seen our strategic plan and it is content."
Dr Wright said that while the initial focus will be on further education provision - basic skills and information technology - the UfI will also be key to expanding higher education.
"UfI will assist further and higher education to widen participation and deliver expansion. In higher education, we can target our learning materials at ethnic minority groups, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds."
"We will assist the sector in meeting their challenges," she added.
The comments came as the UfI team launches a "roadshow" designed to convince universities and colleges to form consortia and bid to set up regional UfI "learning hubs".
The UfI wants to set up 100 learning hubs, run by local consortia, which will help set up a network of 1,000 UfI learning centres in libraries, pubs and community centres across the country.