Alison Wolf

May 25, 2007

Did you know that 70 per cent of the workforce of 2020 has already finished compulsory schooling and is, for the most part, already employed? If not, you have been failing to pay attention. For at least 20 years, successive governments have been going on about the workforce of the future: out there, employed, with us for decades to come and in need of education and training.

In the late 1980s, when National Vocational Qualifications were being developed for pretty much any job you could think of, it was this already-employed workforce that most exercised ministers and senior civil servants. NVQs were to be the catalyst for an enormous increase in the quantity and quality of training, in part because they were designed explicitly for the workplace. And the workplace was - to repeat - where most of the future workforce was already located and where learning had to be fostered.

2020 was a date to conjure with even back then. As it gets closer, declining birth rates and rising pension ages are reducing the proportion of the labour force that starts work in any given year, reinforcing the argument. The recent Treasury-commissioned Leitch Review is the latest in a sequence of government reports bemoaning the state of Britain's skills. It makes much of the 2020 statistic and calls for big increases in adult training and the embedding of a "culture" of learning.

UK governments have also signed up to a succession of "lifelong learning" strategies, so you might expect adult education to be the favoured child of Government, with money pouring in. Think again. Far and away the most planned and regulated part of our education and training system is the post-compulsory, non-university part. And what is happening there is that the proportion, and, most recently, the absolute number of older students or "learners" have not merely failed to increase, they has gone into freefall.

In 1996-97, 80 per cent of people enrolled in further education courses were over 19; today, that figure is just over 60 per cent. The National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education calculates that numbers of adult learners are down by a million over the past two years, with the steepest drops among those over 60, but absolute falls in every age group over 25.

In practice, the Government has been targeting not the whole "workforce of 2020" but the young. It has placed an enormous emphasis on getting 16 to 19-year-olds into full-time programmes leading to qualifications, and it is for these that colleges and "providers" can be confident of public funding from the Learning and Skills Council. The LSC responds directly to central government targets and priorities. Off-message courses fall down the list, which means that many are simply cut and disappear.

With the current commitment to force all young people to continue with education or training until they are 18, the young are going to be receiving even more attention. The vast majority of 16-year-olds already stay on, but by the age of 17 about a quarter have dropped out of any formal education. They will all have to be catered for, which is a lot of people and a lot of money.

Meanwhile, in higher education we face very different rules. The number of home undergraduates we can accept is capped and negotiated with the Higher Education Funding Council for England; but there is no rule about how old - or rather young - they need to be. Moreover, full-fee undergraduates can be as numerous as we can manage, and so can postgraduates. They just need to come, meet our entry standards and pay.

The result is that, while further education students have been getting younger, universities have moved in the other direction. In 2004-05, only 37 per cent of first-year students were full-time undergraduates aged 20 or below. Even among first-year full-timers, only just over half were under 21. Forty-six per cent of first-year full-time postgraduates were 25 or more; and even among full-time undergraduates doing their first degree a quarter of the first-years were over 20. As for the part-timers, 80 per cent of first-years were 25 or over - as were 77 per cent of the part-time first-years on undergraduate programmes. Ten years ago, the Dearing report on higher education pointed out that "traditional" students were now a minority. They are even more of one today.

The Victorian reformers who created our adult education system recognised an enormous pent-up demand for liberal as well as vocational education. I think they would be delighted at how modern universities now respond to both. As for non-university-based adults, I don't think but know what they would feel. It would be horror at our manifest indifference to the adult population and what it actually wants to learn.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.

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