The UfI's chief executive tells Tony Tysome how learndirect works for learners and institutions.
Anne Wright, chief executive of the University for Industry, does not look amused. I have unexpectedly bumped into her at the reception desk of the UfI's swish new offices in Sheffield, 15 minutes before our appointed time for interview. She is accompanying another guest, higher education minister Baroness Blackstone, on a guided tour.
A worried frown crosses Wright's face as I offer a casual greeting to Baroness Blackstone: "Hi, Tessa, how are you? What brings you here?" She musters a faint smile when Lady Blackstone responds: "Fine. I have been inspecting these wonderful premises. They will be very jealous in London."
The UfI's Dearing House offices look impressive. Lots of light and space and trendy furniture. From the foyer, visitors can witness executive meetings in full swing, as administration staff ferry around plates of buffet food.
When our official meeting begins, Wright is quick to point out how appropriate the building's location is: sandwiched between a DIY store ("we can provide do-it-yourself learning") and a supermarket (buy one, get one free courses, perhaps?). Perhaps equally appropriate, or just convenient, the building is in the shadow of Moorfoot, a kind of northern headquarters for the Department for Education and Employment.
The UfI's fledgling learndirect service has been featuring in a high-profile television advertising campaign. But the schedule for learndirect's publicity launch has been slipping. Further education college heads have been complaining about the quality of learning materials being provided for learndirect courses. They also complained that the learndirect contracts they were being asked to sign put the risk of anything going wrong at their door, and not the UfI's. Association of Colleges chief executive David Gibson wrote to member colleges advising them not to sign the contracts. But then changed his mind after the UfI added safety clauses.
Wright is keen to show how these troubles have been overcome. The "main operation" for learndirect started in November, to complete the first stage of "rollout". It all sounds very military. Perhaps that is why the Army and the Royal Air Force have signed up to learndirect's service, along with the National Health Service, Sainsbury's and Ford. Targets abound in the rollout plan.
Learndirect's learning support troops are deployed in 878 learning centres located in shops, internet cafes, sports centres, churches, schools, colleges and even a travelling funfair. The aim is to have 1,000 centres by April. More than 60,000 people have registered for more than 400 courses in anything from basic reading and writing to NVQ level 4 in business and management. With about 4,000 people signing up a week, the UfI does not expect to be far short of its target of 200,000 learners by April.
In fact, the plan is going so well that Wright feels it is time for her to "move forward to the next stage in her career". Just days after our meeting, she announced she would be leaving the UfI to become an adviser to the DFEE on post-16 e-learning. She will keep an eye on learndirect's progress as a non-executive director on the UfI board.
As I start to tackle the sometimes controversial question of how much the UfI charges for its learndirect service, Wright is called to the telephone. Some colleges have been suggesting that the charge is a bit high and that this could affect access as costs are passed on to the learner. It is left to the UfI's director of distributive learning, Helen Milner, to explain how this is nothing to worry about as it fits in with learndirect's funding system.
Learndirect's budget, £53 million this year and £135 million next year, is channelled to learning centres from the funding councils via "recipient" colleges or universities in learndirect "hubs" - groups of learning centres and institutions providing learndirect services in a particular region.
Each recipient institution has a target for the number of learners enrolled in its hub. It gets money for these target enrolments up-front from the funding councils, and justifies the funding by reporting back on actual enrolments. The UfI gets paid every time a learner enrols, when a percentage of the course fee is passed from the hub to learndirect. This percentage varies, but on average it is per cent, Milner says.
When Wright returns, she sets the record straight. The UfI's percentage cut is not a charge at all, but an "e-learning fee", she explains. "Each hub needs to work out its income for the learning and the cost of delivering it. Although we help the hubs to share good practice, it is for them to work out with their partners how to make their business plan work," she says.
The focus of learndirect's work is basic skills and further education. Just £5 million of this year's budget has been allocated by the higher education funding councils. But the UfI has just embarked on a pilot project with five universities -Middlesex, Portsmouth, Anglia Polytechnic University, Glamorgan and Derby - to offer a range of "e-learning at work" courses from certificate to doctorate level. Learndirect provides the IT framework and learner support, while the universities work with employers and learners to "negotiate" course content. Does this mean that the UfI might become a kind of "e-polytechnic", alongside the new "e-university"?
Wright replies: "We don't talk about polytechnics now, but we do see ourselves as complementary to the e-universityI if it makes sense for us to work together in the future, then we will."
The awards in learndirect's higher education pilot are given by participating universities. But there has been concern that other learndirect learners might find it hard to get recognition for their achievements. They can receive a "statement of completion" from their learning centre once they have finished a course. But it has been unclear what value such statements will have.
Wright says the UfI is working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on "mapping" learndirect courses onto a framework of learning units, which can be related to parts of existing qualifications offered by awarding bodies. "We want to make the whole system visible to learners. They should either be able to say 'I want to get this qualification, what learndirect courses can I do to help me?', or do the learndirect course of their choice and then see what units that gives them towards which qualifications," she explains.
I am beginning to see how Wright might feel that, having built a logically organised learndirect system, it is time to move on. The way it works was as clear as mud at the start of our chat, but it became visible with Wright's guidance. But I am not sure what a learner with basic skills needs might make of it all.