Roger Waterhouse looks forward to comprehensive post-school education
The divisions education has inherited are local (no other country has them) and rooted in the British obsession with class. They are based on an outdated model, according to which education in primarily for the young. It is initiation either to the governing elite, in the case of universities, or to the world of the tradesman and skilled worker, in the case of further education. At the age of 18, 21 or whatever, the young person is supposed to know everything he or she needs for the rest of life.
But the world is no longer static like that. Jobs, trades, whole industries disappear. Technological change is still accelerating, people write PhD theses on the rate of knowledge obsolescence. Job insecurity replaces jobs for life. Structural unemployment for the underskilled is matched by cycles of redundancy and reorientation for the more educated. Learning and relearning is a necessary and permanent feature of the future world. The main function of initial education is no longer learning all one needs to know, but learning how to learn for the rest of one's life.
Most students in further and higher education today are mature adults. Yet our structures, our curricula, our very culture treats them as if they need initiation. These adults are not the exception, they are the rule. We should abandon our stereotype of the student as 19-year-old school leaver. We should think instead of the 28-year-old man and 38-year-old woman with years of work and life experience behind them, studying part-time and paying their own way. A system that meets the needs of these adults will equally serve the needs of youngsters fresh from school.
What would the system be like? In the first place it must be universal, that is, cater for all adults and on a recurrent basis. To be excluded from the learning process is to be excluded from society. That way lies the development of an underclass with its attendant misery and social violence.
The system must assume that most students will be earning as they are learning. It must allow individuals to progress by building on their previous achievement, accumulating educational credits towards recognised awards. At no stage should they be told, "Thus far and no further: learning for you is now over". It must formally give credit for learning wherever it takes place - be it at home, in the workplace or elsewhere. In a society where individuals are mobile, it must allow their educational credits to be truly portable.
It must also be responsive to the users. They are free not to buy the service offered. No way will they accept the detailed specification of what they should learn for three or four years of their lives.
If this is the sort of post-school education system our society needs, there is no place in it for the binary divide between further and higher education. We may need national solutions but in the meantime we can make progress locally.
In Derbyshire we have been working for more than six years now towards such a system. Historically the University of Derby was well rooted in the local community and industry. We played a leading role in the North East Midlands Access Partnership, which included more than 20 colleges, and supported its development into the Open College Network. We also provided a base for the Forum for Access Studies, and later for the National Open College Network.
The university's relations with the colleges were always based on partnership. As a result we have a variety of agreements including compacts, direct-access courses, franchised degrees and joint HNDs. Our closest partners are recognised as associate colleges of the university, and we undertake joint marketing and recruitment.
Derby has a university-wide credit accumulation and modular scheme. Three years ago we decided to convert our conventional 120 credit per year system into the 30 hours per credit system, partly because we thought it more robust, but equally because it is the standard in further education.
Over the past year we have been starting to plan the provision of a comprehensive system of post-school education for our region on the basis of redesigned modular, courses with credit-accumulation.
Five colleges are working with the university in this project - Broomfield, Burton, High Peak, Mackworth and South East Derbyshire. The catchment includes the whole of Derbyshire except Chesterfield and Bolsover and extends into East Staffordshire. Our area includes remote hill farms in the west and ex-mining villages in the east, where access and affordability are major challenges. We plan to use electronic as well as conventional means to teach.
Will we be helped or hindered by national developments? Some things are clear. The binary divide between further and higher educational will hinder our progress just as certainly as it will inhibit the growth of a national system supportive of lifelong learning. It should be abolished, and the separate funding councils with it.
Would we need a reconstituted quango to distribute the public money involved? Or could we trust the social market to give the purchasing power directly to the adults the system is designed to benefit? Should we reverse the trend towards centralisation by asking "regional universities" to coordinate their planning in a Europe of the Regions - bottom up rather than top down? And are we wrong to expect some vision from politicians?
Roger Waterhouse is vice chancellor of the University of Derby.