The Ufi Charitable Trust launched on Wednesday of this week. The Trust has an endowment of ~£50m. Its mission is to "to achieve a step change in learning and employability for all adults in the UK, through the adoption of 21st century technologies".
The original University for Industry (Ufi) has played a varying part in my working life for the last 15 years. So attending the launch of the independent charitable trust that is now Ufi got me thinking about the origins of the organisation and about whether well over £1.5 billion of public funding could have been better used.
In around 1994 - a couple of years before getting a job as The Sheffield College's Learning Technology Development Manager - I went to a workshop (was it in Leeds?) at which I heard David Miliband - then with IPPR - and a TGWU shop-steward from Ford's Dagenham plant - talking about the value of what were then known as Employee Development and Participation (or EDAP) schemes. I believe, but am not certain, that Josh Hillman also spoke at the event, about the idea of a "University for Industry". Hillman, who coined the Ufi term and who was later the Head of BBC Education Policy, wrote the rightly very influential IPPR report University for Industry: Creating a national learning network. The proposal to establish a University for Industry was written into the Labour Party's 1997 Election Manifesto.
After Labour's election landslide, Ufi was duly established, and Sheffield (where I live) won the competition to host the new organisation. Several senior civil servants were seconded into the new organisation to get it started, and Anne Wright, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, was recruited in 1998 as Ufi's Chief Executive.
That summer I remember buying a suit in a sale in London, thinking that I might need it for job interviews with Ufi (the salary levels then on offer were hard to resist). I got short-listed for a job which I did not get. At that time I was already sold on web-based learning, knowing it would be the future of online learning. I clearly remember the points I made about this going down badly with Anne Wright during the interview. She was adamant that Ufi's courses would mainly be distributed in the post on CD and on paper. By the time Ufi was ready to roll about 18 months later, web-based delivery was a big part of its operations.
Ufi adopted the brand name learndirect. A recommendation from some consultants that Ufi trade with the name "@chieva" or "achiev@" reportedly got short shrift, David Blunkett having apparently said something like "no, that sounds like a brand of dog food". (In any case, as branding people didn't know in 1999, you can't put an @ in a URL.)
Over the next several years, an enormous amount of funding poured into and through Ufi. According to the National Audit Office, by July 2005 Ufi and learndirect had received £930 million of education funding, consuming, in that year over 2.5% of the English expenditure on the entire FE sector. £218 million - of which £54.2 million (think about it!) was spent on management and marketing in academic year 2004/2005. By now the total amount of public funding received by Ufi must have far exceeded £1.5 billion.
Ufi gradually established itself successfully as a very large scale provider of online distance learning for adults, and to date over 3 million people - including a good proportion who would be classed "hard to reach" - are reported to have benefited from its courses.
The relationship between Ufi and the post-16 sector was somewhat fraught. In the early days efforts were made to get colleges to make use of Ufi content. And many colleges, including my own, worked as "Ufi hubs", which involved supporting Ufi provision in parallel with standard provision. It was messy and time consuming, with Ufi tending to think that colleges lacked commitment to and effectiveness in the work, and colleges tending to think that they were cross-subsidising Ufi. The feeling I had was that we were getting in the way of Ufi achieving really big economies of scale in things like the enrolment process. The planned simplification of Ufi's structure highlighted in the 2005 National Audit Office report greatly reduced colleges from involvement in Ufi.
Fast forward to 2011. In October, advised by the Rothschild Group, the Ufi Charitable Trust - the registered charity established by the Government to host Ufi - sold learndirect and its IPR (which was not Crown Copyright, I think because from its inception the Government thought that Ufi would be a money-spinner) for ~£50m in a management buy-out to private equity house LDC, part of the Lloyds Banking Group.
As an independent charity, the Trust rightly chose not to return the proceeds of the sale to the Treasury.
On Wednesday 23 May the Trust unveiled its strategic vision and investment plans. Over the last five months I've had the luck - with Adrian Perry, Clive Shepherd and Dick Moore - to work on a commission from the Trust to research and write Scaling up - achieving a breakthrough in adult learning with technology.
The work forced us to think carefully about the how and why of technology supported learning; and as part of the study we had the privilege of interviewing a wide range of interesting and influential figures drawn from the learning technology field and more widely. The report is obviously the result of some compromises - between team members, between the team and Ufi, and with the immovable deadline of the Trust's launch. For sure it will not please everyone - because of things not covered, for oversimplifications, and possibly for being technologically deterministic. But, in advance of any feedback, I'm glad to have had the chance to help frame a discussion about how to achieve the scaling up that the Trust seeks.
One question concerns me. As I indicate above, a very large amount of public funding flowed though Ufi between its inception in 1998 and its privatisation 13 years later. The Trust's £50m endowment is substantial enough, if it is as well targeted as the Trust obviously intends, to get a lot to happen.
But I am left wondering what could have been achieved if the funds the Government lavished on Ufi (and in the early days there is no question that the term "lavished" is appropriate) had been used to support the Trust's current mission, but within the existing system rather than alongside it.
Stumbling blocks would have included the extreme complexity of the English vocational education system, and the resistance in the system to changes in its ways of working. (We cover both of these in the report.)
But I believe that despite these problems the funds could have been used systematically to bring change into the existing system.
Let's do some very rough and ready calculations.
Let's assume that Ufi has had £1.5 billion of FE funding over 13 years: we'll round that down to £100 million per year; and that it has reached 3 million mostly disadvantaged adult learners, mostly on short courses, during the same period. (That's about £500 per enrolment - the typical cost per learner in FE on a 30 hour course would be, at the very most, £180.)
If the £1.5 billion had been spread across the sector on a straight line basis, pro-rata to college size, a typical large college's share of the £1.5 billion would have been about £0.75 million per year, with a parallel requirement to run technology-supported short courses for, say, 1500 mostly disadvantaged adults per year.
For some colleges it would have been a stretch; but with the right oversight, and control - which would have had some non-trivial costs and which are not discussed above - most could have achieved it. And there would have been scope to lever a great deal of change at large scale, including shared learning materials, shared technical platforms, shared data-systems, shared staff-development. Furthermore, a proportion of the funds could have been earmarked for particular thematic interventions, for example in work-based learning, or in mathematics. I have no doubt that a system-wide breakthrough in adult learning with technology, perhaps a bit overly focused on formal learning, could by now have been achieved.
In contrast what is left of well over £1.5 billion of public funding is:
- learndirect as a privately owned going concern;
- 3 million learners who have benefited during the last 13 years;
- a ~£50m endowment.
Though I do not doubt the importance of the work the Ufi Charitable Trust will now be supporting, I believe the overall impact of over £1.5 billion of public funding has been much less than it should have been.
Note. Inevitably, this is a personal, hindsight-laden reflection. Readers who were more directly involved - for example in the UK Online Centres which at one point were run by Ufi - may wish to comment. And I will gladly correct the inevitable factual errors if any are pointed out to me.