Cashing in on learning curve

March 28, 1997

In an education system where university courses - and places at fee-paying schools - cost thousands of pounds per year, how much learning do you expect to get for Pounds 25?

As we report this week (page 1), Pounds 25-Pounds 50 is all that employees will be expected to chip in to start their individual learning accounts under plans being finalised by the Labour Party. The Government will come up with rather more - and there will be tax incentives to make employers find a lot more.

With sums of money like these in the equation, it seems that the learning to be encouraged will be closer to adult education than to advanced technology training.

According to Labour's Stephen Byers, the point at the moment is to establish the principle of learning accounts. In practice, this mainly means making them a credible device in the eyes of employers, who at this rate are going to emerge as the main funders of the new system.

However, the Labour proposals do seem to have long-term potential for creating a worthwhile revival of interest in learning, and seem to have been designed to avoid unscrupulous employers using staff and the state to pay for their in-house training.

The scheme's stress on learning rather than training is one which deserves applause. Learning can be related directly to doing one's job better, but should convey knowledge that is applicable to other jobs too.

This is the real lesson of the English community's finding (page 12), that its graduates are as good at getting jobs as people who have studied business - and the opinion of one United States academic (page 13) that single-company degrees produce people who cannot contribute the external perspective that is most needed by inward-looking employers.

Although the sums involved per person may not look tempting, the credits built up in these learning accounts will soon total hundreds of millions of pounds. For this reason a wide range of providers is likely to get involved.

The universities that have prospered from the growth of taught master's degrees ought to be able to deliver learning at the prices being discussed, as should further and higher education colleges.

And the growth of learning accounts is bound to stimulate the arrival of new learning suppliers. Most will do the job properly but it would be a first if at least some did not.

The new system ought to be as unstuffy as possible. But it will be spending public money and providing a vital economic service, which means that there will have to be a quality control system which applies across the system to all the places where learning bank money can be spent.

Recent quality controversies have shown that even long-established and well-known institutions can get things wrong.

Institutes getting learning account money will be working to satisfy individual learners, who ought to have the last word on the quality of the learning they receive.

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