At last adult learners are on the government agenda

March 13, 1998

David Blunkett's vision in the green paper The Learning Age is inclusive and generous but not without faults, says Alan Tuckett

Adult learners were not uppermost in Kenneth Baker's mind in January 1989 when he made his call for major expansion of the United Kingdom's higher education system. Nor were they a major concern of the drafters of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.

Yet they have been the major beneficiaries of the expansion of post-compulsory education over the past decade, accounting now for three in four of the places in further education and an absolute majority of students in higher education. This has been despite the way we organise post-school education, and it has been largely invisible outside the business. Meanwhile, 30 per cent or more of the adult population does nothing in education or training after school.

The delayed policy paper on lifelong learning is needed to make a more adult-friendly system. Too many institutions accept part-timers on sufferance, offering less support and fewer facilities. Most adults have to fit their studies into other complex demands made on their lives. For learners, the real pressure these demands make on time concentrates the mind.

Time and money are issues for part-time students, and mature students constitute 85 per cent of the part-time student body. In higher education part-time students have always had to pay fees, without access to grants; in further education even full-time students have no secure access to financial support. It might seem more sensible to study full-time, but it just is not practicable for many adults. Those who do carve out the time to do a full-time course perform, on average, better than their younger colleagues. But they end up with substantial debts.

It is no surprise, in the light of this, that the cut in student grants and the introduction of loans should lead more adults to see part-time study as the only viable route back to study, as the 20 per cent fall in mature student applications for full-time places in higher education suggests. Headlines that highlight the hardship of students do little to motivate under-represented groups to join in.

All this illustrates the difficult challenges facing the government in getting the balance of interests right in its lifelong learning policy. There is a need to recognise the importance of financial support in opening access, whatever the mode of study and academic level of the learner. Indeed, you could argue that since the benefits to the learner become more apparent as you study at higher levels, public support should be concentrated on "getting people to the starting line" as Baroness Blackstone put it. That is, of course, the argument at the core of Helena Kennedy's Learning Works, the Further Education Funding Council report on widening participation, and it is the view of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

The situation in local authority based, uncertificated adult education is acute and calls for action, as years of financial squeeze leave an increasing number of services to offer wholly inadequate programmes. Yet such work is not an optional luxury. For older people wanting to prolong active citizenship and for people taking a first tentative step back to study such services are vital. As the family literacy experience shows they are a cost-effective means of breaking into a cycle of educational disadvantage.

Two powerful arguments militate against changes that would weaken the institutions of higher education. First, it would be an irony if we were to improve the opportunities for adults to develop skills and confidence as learners in further education to the extent that they choose to go on with their studies only to find that when they arrive at university they are offered a diminished experience in a cash-strapped institution.

Second, changes in the global economy are increasing the importance of the knowledge-based industries to economic prosperity and they rely on a robust and effective higher education system.

The challenge is to shift the balance of public investment, private and employer investment over time without endangering the viability of the system. That is easier to achieve in a growing economy, and is why both Dearing and Kennedy make such powerful pleas for increased investment in post-school education.

But if the learning society is to find a way of involving everyone it is not just a question of more money for existing institutions. Marginal changes in the balance of funding of institutions will not lead to a system able to support mass participation. Hence the attraction of a University for Industry promoting greater participation and the attraction of Individual Learning Accounts in fostering greater individual investment in learning. Such initiatives properly change the focus to learners rather than institutions.

It is easy to caricature the haste of the government in deciding on grants and loans and its embarrassed gyrations over the delays in the publication of The Learning Age as uncertainty, or as the victory of Downing Street spin doctors over elected politicians, but no one should pretend that the choices we face are comfortable. I would prefer a policy that was right rather than one that was early.

On balance, I think The Learning Age is impressive in addressing these challenges, and David Blunkett's vision, in particular, is inclusive and generous. It recognises the need to give impetus to widening participation in higher and further education and does something to strengthen local education authority-based adult learning. It takes important steps to turn the UfI into a practical achievement and to begin work on a credit framework. It is modest enough to ask for advice on ILAs.

On the other hand it fails to articulate a commitment to fair treatment for part-timers, says too little about guidance and is too generous with employers. It is, also, unsurprisingly quiet on money. That it is a green paper is an advantage - since it will not be the last word. There is still work to do to convince the policy wonks in Numbers 10 and 11, but adult learners are, at last, recognisably on the agenda. Given their tenacity, they can be relied on to make use of the spaces the paper opens up.

Alan Tuckett is director ofthe National Institute of AdultContinuing Education.

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