College shuffle in ten steps

November 14, 1997

David Chaytor outlines ten stages that he believes could achieve a comprehensive, lifelong learning society

The forthcoming publication of the white paper on lifelong learning, coupled with the government's commitment to create an additional 500,000 places in colleges and universities, provides an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the whole of post-compulsory education in Britain.

We need to see a dramatic expansion of participation in colleges and universities, significant new investment to underpin this expansion, a ruthless driving up of standards and targets for both lecturers and managers, and a cultural revolution in our attitudes to teaching and learning. We must unleash the enormous potential for information technology to create a learning society in which lifelong learning for everyone is the norm rather than the exception.

There are, I believe, ten priorities for a comprehensive and egalitarian lifelong learning policy that could transform the lives of future generations and equip us to meet the challenges of the 21st century. They are: 1An allocation of investment to match the expansion of places. Colleges need an immediate restoration of the cash lost through the abolition of Super Demand-Led Education plus a further Pounds 100 million to restore stability and eliminate unavoidable historical deficits. The Pounds 165 million redirected to the universities some weeks ago was very welcome. Now David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment, simply has to win the argument with the conservatives in the Treasury about the method of accounting for the new student loans. The argument over loans and fees can only be won decisively if the universities, students and parents see cash on the table.

2Strategic planning should be re-established in the college sector. The internal quasi-market that has operated since 1993 must go - as must some colleges. Others need to merge with adjacent colleges. Some should merge with adjacent universities. The waste of resources in operating the internal market has been the secret scandal of the mid-1990s and the price has been paid by teachers and students.

3 The super league question in the university sector has to be sorted out. It is completely naive to think that the smaller universities are ever going to deliver the range of leading-edge research of international quality that we expect from our major institutions. However, it would be disastrous and demoralising to create an apartheid within higher education in which staff in smaller (or newer) universities were denied opportunities for research. The only solution is for a super league of regional centres of excellence developing partnerships with smaller universities (and a complete block on top-up fees). Again strategic planning is needed to harness both the dynamism and the destructiveness of the market.

4 An integrated credit framework for the whole of further and higher education has to be developed. What a shambles the present system is and how ludicrous that in an age when so many people move home frequently, it is so difficult to transfer their learning experiences. God forbid we should ever have a national curriculum for lifelong learning, but there are lessons to be learned from the coherence of the primary and secondary curriculum.

5 Those employers who still have not got the message that their future depends on the skills (and the commitment) of their workforce should be woken up. Most of the big boys have always understood this but the crucial small and medium enterprise sector needs much more support. NVQs have started to scratch the surface but Investors in People remains largely bureaucratic tokenism. The company lifelong learning policy should be as commonplace as the company health and safety policy.

6 The realities of the labour market in post-industrial societies must be recognised. Government has a crucial responsibility to ensure that the end of full employment and the job for life are matched by the expansion of learning opportunities for everyone as the key to full employability. The crazy 16-hour rule must surely go and the New Deal's full-time study option extended to include all unemployed adults.

7 An Open College on the model of the Open University should be created. The University for Industry is a brilliant concept but lifelong learning must extend beyond the strictly vocational. Open College networks already exist throughout the country. They need access to television and cheap personal computers and a central structure along the lines of the OU to reach out to those millions who are searching for more than The National Lottery Live.

8Oxbridge must at last be opened up to state schools. The old boys' and girls' network has to be broken up if we are to create a genuine meritocracy. The state has the power to influence the admissions pattern at Oxbridge. It should use it.

9 The nettle of A-level reform has to be grasped. Elitism in the universities has distorted the shape of our secondary curriculum for too long. Selection at 11 has been replaced by selection at 14. It should not surprise us that so few young people from working-class backgrounds progress to higher education when so many are disenfranchised from learning so early. The broader based modular curriculum post-16, bridging the academic/vocational divide, must come quickly if higher education participation rates are to increase significantly.

Teachers should be properly rewarded. This month's House of Commons select committee report makes an excellent start but there is much more to do. Of course there are some poor teachers and they need to be redeployed into a job they can do well. Most teachers and lecturers are dedicated public servants with an astonishingly high level of commitment to their students. Government must recognise that - and soon.

David Chaytor is Labour MP for Bury North and secretary of the all-party group for adult education. He was previously head of the department of continuing education at the Manchester College of Arts and Technology.

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