Universities need to “show more imagination” to create a culture of lifelong learning in the higher education sector, Sir David Watson said this week.
Speaking in his role as chair of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning, Sir David called for universities to set up a more flexible framework to allow learners to accumulate credit towards degrees and other qualifications.
He also demanded that universities work more closely with further education colleges.
In his first major public address since the commission began work in September 2007, and before it publishes its findings in June, he described the current lifelong-learning system as a “jungle of provision” with accountability requirements of “Kafkaesque proportions”.
“The current framework is recognised by almost all participants and commentators as radically unfit for the purposes of effective and equitable lifelong learning. What is more, it has been subjected to violent lurches in policy compounded by serious lapses in policy memory on the part of successive governments,” he said.
Although the UK has the highest percentage of part-time students, the highest average age of participants and the second-highest rate of working-class participation in the European Union, the higher education system still favours the participation of young, full-time students studying away from home, Sir David said.
The commission is calling for a credit framework that will allow people to step in and out of formal education throughout their lives. “The flexibility that a proper credit framework brings will be all the more needed in the light of current economic turbulence and the effects this is having on employment.
“Large numbers of adults will be seeking to improve their qualifications without having to commit themselves to a long stretch of full-time education.
“This is not a technical issue: we have the systems. It is a cultural and moral issue: we fail to use these systems for reasons of conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination.”
Sir David also warned: “Universities have always tended to use further education as a kind of header tank: a useful source of recruitment when needed; of displacement during periods of rapid expansion; and of collaboration on their own terms. This will not do in the future.”