Leader: A target to boost lifelong learning

May 20, 2005

The Queen's Speech made no mention of higher education and Ruth Kelly's first post-election interview on the subject carries little hint of action. Cue a sigh of relief from most of those working in universities and colleges, who want nothing more than to be left alone by the Government. Teachers would give almost anything to be spared the next stage of the permanent revolution that schools undergo, whichever party is in power. Out of sight is out of mind, however. It is no coincidence that higher education suffered under the first Blair administration, when primary education was ministers' priority, and fared better in the second term, when reforms were being debated.

Ms Kelly does not pretend that the sector will have first call on any extra funding that may come her way, even though student numbers will have to rise substantially to meet the Government's own target at a time of continuing demographic growth. Instead, she returns to the mantra of secretaries of state over 30 years or more: that higher education must work more closely with business and industry to bring in more of its own money.

Universities have responded to this call - with more enthusiasm than many academics would wish and more successfully than in most other countries.

They will no doubt do more, but this alone will not fill the funding gap that the Prime Minister acknowledged at the outset of the debate on top-up fees.

The more encouraging aspect of the interview lies in Ms Kelly's willingness to revisit the Government's 50 per cent participation target - not to reduce it but to extend its scope. The Labour manifesto had appeared to harden up the pledge by dropping the notion of "working towards" the target. But if lifelong learning is to be more than a slogan, it makes no sense to place a premium on the recruitment of the under-30s, especially when foundation degrees (which were to have been the main vehicle of expansion towards 50 per cent participation) seem to appeal as much to the over-30s as to younger people.

Ms Kelly would almost certainly be deluding herself if she thought that extending the age range covered by the target would make it easier to hit.

The main expansion of higher education is sufficiently recent that older people are still much less likely than the young or middle-aged to have been to university or college. But removing the age limit would allow her to reopen the debate on what proportion of the population (if any) is required to meet the economic and social needs of the nation. The economist in her will surely conclude that manpower planning will never produce the "right" answer and that the target will always be largely symbolic. But at least an extended version would reflect higher education as it now is, rather than imposing an age limit with no significance.

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