The Scots blueprint on lifelong learning gives people access to education at any stage in life, whatever their means. Olga Wojtas reports on a visionary plan.
The Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee is promising the biggest strategic review of post-school education since the Robbins report 40 years ago. But with the parliament's much-vaunted aim of consensus, the cross-party committee is seeking a wide range of views on its interim report before finalising its proposals.
These were drawn up in the wake of oral evidence from 77 key witnesses, written submissions from more than 120 organisations and individuals, and case-study visits to a range of institutions, including the UHI Millennium Institute, the highlands and islands' high-tech network of further education colleges and research institutes.
The report is supported unanimously by the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist and Conservative committee members, but uses the wording "the committee is minded to recommend" rather than anything more prescriptive. It will be amended in light of responses, with the final version expected in June.
Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott said: "We are confident of our conclusions, but with such radical proposals we are keen to see how they are received and hear the views of those who are most closely involved. We're actually looking for a very clear steer."
The committee argues that Scotland lacks a coherent national strategy for lifelong learning, with the system based on piecemeal, independent developments. Fast-paced technological change, shifts in the economic base, skills shortages and the demographic downturn all have implications for learning in the coming decade.
Eighty per cent of the working population in 2002 is in work, and the population is falling. "In other words, if Scotland is to have a trained, self-motivated and competitive workforce in 25 years' time, provision will have to focus more on those in work than it has in the past," the report says.
Most funding assumes upward progression, and is largely directed towards school-leavers moving on to higher education, says the report. But more emphasis is needed on work-based learning, continuing professional development and part-time study.
"Individuals may need to move 'sideways' and gain new competencies in new areas at the same level. Funding mechanisms must be amended to reflect this," the report says.
The committee claims its proposals will generate a system that is learner-led, flexible, equitable and characterised by parity of esteem. Everyone would be offered a lifelong learning entitlement after completing compulsory education, which they could use in different ways and at different times throughout their lives. All learners would be treated equally, whether taking a degree or a modern apprenticeship.
The committee's convener, Alex Neil, of the Scottish National Party, said the new Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework was central to the proposals. The SCQF offers a single reference point for learners, employers and institutions, allowing all the main qualifications from schools, colleges, workplaces and universities to be compared.
Norman Sharp of the Quality Assurance Agency's Scottish office told the committee: "Describing the past is complex; describing the future is simplicity itself. The credit point will be exactly the same whether someone is at the early stages of school, in a further education college, in a professional statutory body or learning anywhere in Scotland. A common unit of credit will run through absolutely everything."
All learners would have an entitlement equivalent to 720 SCQF credit points - the equivalent of six years of full-time study - after completing the fourth year of secondary school. Taking a fifth and sixth year at school would use 240 of these points.
Mr Neil envisages that everyone will eventually have a "lifelong learning smart card", recording details of their entitlement, whether it has been used or not, and their qualifications.
And the committee believes an entitlement will have an effect psychologically as well as practically in widening access, sending a message that lifelong learning is for everyone.
Labour committee member Marilyn Livingstone said: "The committee has taken considerable evidence to support the view that learners should be treated equally, whatever level they are studying at. We are also keen to ensure more flexible pathways are opened up for learners, so that there is the potential to zig-zag up the qualifications framework, rather than all progression being linear. A credit-based system allows people to enter and exit at any time, and allows people to realise this is OK."
It will be crucial for learners to be well advised, so that they use their entitlement wisely, the report says, and it welcomes the Scottish Executive's creation of Careers Scotland, a one-stop careers advice shop for people of all ages.
The committee wants to see learners drive the funding, rather than funding driving learning, but acknowledges that a potential drawback is the instability this can create for institutions. It proposes a balance between funding linked to learners, and core funding distributed centrally by funding bodies.
The report does not include costings, but the committee's deputy convener, Conservative Annabel Goldie, said the recommendations were "effectively budget neutral", and the committee was not proposing a blank cheque for lifelong learning. As the committee gathered evidence, she had expected people to "cry poverty", but the message appeared to be one of a need for greater efficiency in distributing existing resources.
The committee would ultimately like to see a single funding council for further, higher and vocational education, but has taken account of evidence that it is too early to merge the Scottish further and higher education funding councils.
But it suggests a first step of a single funding body for post-compulsory education up to SCQF level 8, which covers Higher National Diplomas and the second year of university.
Mr Neil said the proposal recognised the close relationship between further education and training programmes, bringing them under one umbrella, with the prospect of merger with Shefc after perhaps five years.
Different levels of courses might attract different levels of funding, and while funding would still be based on subject groupings, there could be weightings for non-educational factors, such as providing courses in remote areas, the report says. And it suggests a single support body for learners up to SCQF level 8 might help remove some of the anomalies that exist between different sectors and schemes.
The committee also wants to see a one-stop shop for information on funding, on the lines of the advice available on courses from learndirect Scotland.
Mr Neil said: "For those not going into the higher education sector, the variety of funding mechanisms available is almost unmappable. We need to make life a lot simpler for the learner. " Planning should be done by an advisory council with oversight of the funding council and other bodies involved in lifelong learning.
The committee was lobbied strongly, particularly by further education colleges, about the burden of quality assessment.
The committee proposes a single quality system for vocational and further education, and wants debate on whether there is scope for a single quality-assurance system for all learning.
The report can be found at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/official_report/cttee/enter-02/elr02-02-01.htm
The lifelong learning plan: key points
Taken together, the proposals would be "cash neutral", and would be achieved from the redistribution of resources already put into lifelong learning
* Everyone should receive a "lifelong learning entitlement" on completing compulsory school education. This would give them the right to study up to the equivalent of a four-year degree, based on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, when and where they choose
* Provision will be "learner-led" and it will not be for institutions to dictate provision. This will be linked to more effective guidance, ensuring that those going into post-school education understand the opportunities open to them
* Everyone should have a lifelong learning log, with the eventual development of a learning "smart card" recording credit used and learning achieved
* All learners in further, higher and vocational education should come under a single funding system
* There should be a single agency centralising guidance on funding for further education students
* There should be a single quality-assessment system for vocational qualifications and further education, which would also award quality kitemarks to private-sector courses
* There should be a Lifelong Learning Advisory Council, including representatives of learners, business and providers, to provide advice to ministers on long-term strategic direction and planning for lifelong learning policy
* There should ultimately be a single funding system for all learning providers, but in the first instance this should cover all post-compulsory learning up to HND/university second-year level
* There should be less top slicing of funds to support initiatives. Instead, policies should be promoted through conditions of grant or formula weighting
* There should be greater collaboration and partnership between learning providers. Public funding for higher education should be conditional on improving collaboration with further education
* All funding for learning should be weighted to attract and retain learners from socially excluded backgrounds. The wider access premium to help higher education institutions retain non-traditional entrants should be increased to 20 per cent
* There should be a range of schemes to improve access for people in deprived or remote areas, people from minority ethnic groups, older people, people with disabilities and people with care responsibilities
* Funding should be weighted to reflect the increased cost of courses in rural and island areas
* Public funding for learning should be dependent on training providers implementing appropriate staff development schemes, particularly in information and communications technology
* Any institution offering publicly funded training must, as a condition of grant, consult employers to ensure that courses are relevant
* Colleges and universities should develop more programmes that use the workplace as part of the educational experience
* As a condition of grant for capital funding, institutions must provide access to publicly funded facilities for those able to benefit, including voluntary bodies and community learning staff
* The Scottish Executive should drive the development of a national strategy on e-learning. This should cover high-quality developments for the Scottish and international markets.
* International benchmarks should be established against which Scotland's lifelong learning performance can be measured.
'Sensible' plan or 'excellence jeopardised'?
There has been a broad welcome for the report, particularly for its lack of prescription and the prospect of further debate and consultation over complex issues.
Wendy Alexander, Scotland's enterprise and lifelong learning minister, said: "This is an excellent opportunity for those involved in lifelong learning to take a step back and consider the learning landscape in Scotland."
The National Union of Students Scotland, often marginalised in debates under previous administrations, praised devolution for ensuring the student voice had been heard. It said the committee had clearly been influenced by its views, notably on an active planning remit for the tertiary sector, and the need for a single funding council for further and higher education.
Mandy Telford, president of NUS Scotland, said: "Devolution has meant there's now a consultative mindset. The old Scottish Office was just impenetrable, with ministers who were hardly ever in Scotland. We've put in a lot of effort into gaining the respect of the establishment, and have presented our views in a very positive and responsible manner. There is now a shared agenda on wider access."
John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University, welcomed the idea of a coherent national strategy.
"There's a great deal in here that seems eminently sensible. A lot of what they're suggesting is incremental change rather than dramatic change," he said. "But I can see some real devil in the detail."
Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said:
"The recommendation for a lifelong learning smart card could have major benefits for learners and Scotland's economy. It is important, however, that individuals should have a plan for their learning journey, not just 'air miles' with no destination."
There is widespread scepticism over whether the proposals can be "cash neutral". Educationists warn that unless there are extra resources, opportunities cannot be extended without denying them to some of those currently benefiting.
Lord Sutherland, convener of Universities Scotland, said: "At the heart of the report is the desire to increase the amount of learning people do throughout their life. Scotland's universities very much want to see this and are keen to play their part in delivering that learning.
"But if there is to be more learning of the high quality and standards Scotland's lifelong learning sector delivers, there must be more resources invested right across lifelong learning. If we are asked to do more with less, it is the learner who will pay the price."
Peter McColl, convener of the Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland, said there was "a worrying lack of clarity" about the future relationship between the further and higher education sectors. "We sought to emphasise that while higher education and further education do not differ in quality, they differ greatly in nature," he said.
"I am not convinced that this has been taken on board and I believe the task of maintaining excellence in higher education institutions could be jeopardised."
There are fears that a shift towards a more learner-based funding system risks destabilising institutions. The committee has made it clear that learners' choices will be subject to what is available in institutions. But there is concern over how the lifelong learning entitlement will operate.
The report suggests that individuals need not use their entitlement to progress from one level to another, and might, for example, take two Higher National Diplomas in the course of their life. But there are warnings that this must not be at the expense of individuals aiming for a particular qualification for the first time.
Much debate is likely to centre on the proposal of a single funding system for all learning up to level 8 of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, equivalent to the second year of university. There is confusion over how this might work.
Tony Axon, research officer of the Association of University Teachers Scotland, said it would be overly complicated and unworkable to split higher education funding between two funding bodies.
Mr Kelly said: "We are puzzled as to why they are proposing to separate the markets (at this level). That doesn't seem to us either to be right in principle or to reflect current practice."
Dr Axon said many of the things the committee wanted to see, such as implementing the SCQF and forging better links between universities and colleges, were at an early stage and needed more work, but fitted in with institutional aspirations. "It's like turning tankers, but it's the direction we're going in," he said.
There is some concern in higher education that the review does not extend to considering how teaching, research and commercialisation interrelate. The AUTS is also disappointed by there being very brief mention of institutional governance and management of staff.
The committee is calling for more debate on how best to recruit and retain high-quality staff.