Lights out for lifelong learning? 1

November 16, 2007

John Denham is right ("Let's turn the spotlight on all our young talent", November 9). But how sad that he so underestimates the starkness of the challenge we face.

Of course it is right to nurture young talent wherever it exists. But in the "world of tomorrow", those same young people will be older learners. Building the knowledge economy requires that we harness the talents of people of all ages and not just the talents of those who are young today. This is why, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the starkest challenge is to provide "not one chance but second, third, fourth and lifelong chances" in a society that places "the highest possible cultural value upon learning". The implication of Gordon Brown's vision of education is precisely that first-time entrants to higher education cannot be in competition with lifelong learners since they are the very same people, at different stages of life.

Strange then that, on the grounds of "fairness" to first-time entrants, and with little sign of the "cool-headed" sensitivity to the "plethora of factors at work" he recommends, Denham has instructed the Higher Education Funding Council for England to cut more than £100 million of funding from those who are now seeking those second, third and fourth chances.

The decision to withdraw funding for equivalent or lower qualifications will cause enormous damage to providers of new lifelong chances for young and old alike: the sector's part-time specialists, centres of lifelong learning, the Open University and Birkbeck College. In doing so, and for the sake of 1 per cent of the higher education budget, the new policy jeopardises the future lifelong chances of the same young people Denham wishes now to nurture. To claim that this is "fairer" is in the plainest possible contradiction to the Prime Minister's vision.

It is sad and strange indeed that those who wish to "turn the spotlight" on our young talent, which this country so desperately needs to go on learning throughout their life, should simultaneously be seeking to turn off the lights for lifelong learning.

Ian Ground , Centre for Lifelong Learning, Sunderland University.

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