A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has highlighted the shortcomings of the programme at the head of the Government's elearning initiative, the University for industry (Ufi), especially concerning supplying value for money.

The report found that the Ufi, which is responsible for learndirect, the largest online learning government "“ backed programme in the world, had only generated £12 million in commercial income in the period leading up to July 2005. This small commercial return is in spite of having had approximately £1 billion of public funds steered into it. The NAO told the government Public Accounts Committee meeting that whilst the outlook was potentially promising, much work remained before commercial successes would come.

The Past and the Future

The Ufi was first launched in 1998 with funding from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). The organisation's aims were to help young people from the age of 16 onwards to improve their employment potential, through the type of public - private partnership that is close to the heart of this Government and would hopefully attract external investment.

The organisation has thus far spent £930 million, and there are plans in place to spend a further £200 million by the end of the 2005 / 2006 academic year. It is expected that approximately 1.7 million people will have taken part in some four million courses via Learndirect by the end of July 2005. In a further indication of the mountain that lies ahead of the hillock climbed so far, the NAO report revealed that inly 37% of businesses questioned were aware of the services offered by learndirect.

Ufi Seek Patience for Progress

The committee chairman Edward Leigh summarised the feelings of the committee, saying: "Ufi is spending a lot of money but not generating as much as expected because the organisation is too complex." The implication that organisational models need to be streamlined and simplified is in keeping with Government thinking, as can be seen in moves to merge the inspecting bodies, the Office for standards in education (Ofsted) and the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI).

The Ufi chief executive, Sarah Jones, spoke up for the Ufi, telling the MPs that the majority of the £12 million commercial income had been generated from two public sector accounts with the Connexions service (ammounting to £6 million) and the NHSU (£1.1 million). She also spoke of the burgeoning success of interacting with businesses, saying: "We"ve had a lot of interaction with businesses. We are reaching companies but we"re not generating enough money".

Jethro Marsh

Is Ufi value for public billions?

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