Balancing the equation

October 24, 1997

THE debate over lifelong learning (THES, October 10) appears to assume that reconciling the diverse interests of individuals, employers and society at large can all be simply subsumed into the single concept of "learning accounts".

It also presupposes that "learning accounts" can equally fulfil the needs of the unemployed and of those in employment. Yet this is far from being the case.

For those in employment, time, rather than money, is likely to be the most precious commodity. It could be argued that money is time in the sense that the individual employee would be able to purchase time from the employer using his or her learning account.

However, this ignores the highly unequal power relations that exist between an individual employee and an employer.

This power relation is likely to be even worse for those in greatest need of education and training, for example those whose skills are in danger of being made redundant.

The quality of the deal that an individual is likely to obtain from an employer will therefore vary in inverse proportion to the need of the individual.

The only way around this is either for the state to intervene on behalf of the employee, through legislation that would compel employers to provide education and training time, or for thenegotiation between the individual and the employer to bemediated through a trade union, whose collective strength might compensate for the individual's weakness.

Under the initiative of the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union, the University of East London is involved in developing a partnership that deals with the problems raised above in a way that is likely to be far more effective in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable employees in the financial services industry than the concept of "learning accounts".

In addition to the union and UEL, the partnership involves the employer Unisys. It also has the support of FOCUS, the central London Training and Enterprise Council.

All three partners and FOCUS are collaborating in financing the development of relevant UEL degree programmes into a part-distance learning format that will be suitable to be taken by Unisys employees whose skills are vulnerable to technical change.

Study time is provided in roughly equal proportions by Unisys and the employee. In addition, Unisys provides study facilities, including IT facilities, at the workplace.

The scheme is being managed by BIFU, which represents the collective interests of the employees. The union's involvement also guarantees that the scheme will deliver education and transferable skills rather than narrow employer-defined skills.

It is to Unisys's credit that it too supports the need for a broad education of such employees in addition to vocational training.

Once the course development and pilot stage is complete, the state will be involved as thestudents will be part-time degree students of UEL and as such partly funded through the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Alvaro de Miranda Head, department ofinnovation studies Faculty of social science University of East London

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